With Venezuela’s presidential election coming up on October 7, one question looms large – can Hugo Chávez possibly lose? Perhaps the question should actually be, can his challenger win? From what I have read, the opposition is unified, pragmatic, and proactive in a manner different from prior campaigns. Checking my past posts, I haven’t written about Venezuela before. However, I don’t know that anything in South American politics could produce a sea change in both domestic and foreign policy quite like that of a possible Chávez departure.
The man trying to unseat el Presidente is Henrique Capriles Radonski, former Mayor of the Baruta Municipality of Caracas, and former Governor of Miranda State. He is backed by a unified opposition coalition, the MUD (Movement for Democratic Unity). A wide spectrum of opposition parties formed MUD in 2008, as a remedy for the opposition’s erroneous decision to sit out the 2005 legislative elections. This resulted in zero opposition legislators, and thus zero opportunity to communicate with the public from a position of authority. In the 2010 congressional elections, MUD took 67 out of 165 seats. In this presidential campaign, MUD has several unique commitments. The first, in words of political analyst Alonso Moleiro, is “co-existing with chavismo.” MUD is not going to demonize the man, but rather try to appear as a sensible, progressive alternative. Secondly, MUD opened its February 2012 presidential primary to all voters. 3 million people cast votes (about 16% of total voters), and Capriles won handily. Commentators had predicted about 1.5 million would show up.
Capriles himself is the social and campaign-trail opposite of the larger-than-life Chávez. He is described as soft-spoken, even-keeled, and non-confrontational. While a representative of the center-right section of the spectrum, he does not spout ideology. Capriles generally rejects that chavista idea that the state should manage all. Capriles has called for improved schooling as a way to combat poverty. MUD’s platform is similarly pragmatic – it would restore central bank autonomy and remake state oil company PDVSA as a focused oil production company, rather than the state’s pocket book.
Though he possesses all the advantages of incumbency, Chávez does not look invulnerable. He has presided over rampant inflation (almost 30% annually in the last few years, as estimated by the IMF), and a deterioration in public services. Polling data shows that Venezuelans are more concerned about crime than all other policy questions combined. P.G., a writer for The Economist’s Americas View blog, says that he and his Venezuelan wife have witnessed three armed robberies in broad daylight this year. His blog post begins with a particularly off-putting story of a home invasion in which a three-year-old was shot to death. These are not simply anecdotes. While the government stopped releasing crime data in 2004, Interior Minister Tareck el Aissami claimed Venezuela’s 2010 murder rate to be 48 per 100,000 people. This compares to 19 per 100,000 in 1998, the year before Chávez’ inauguration. The government seems to think that it just needs to change society’s perception of itself – the current proposed solution is to limit images of violence in the media, to suppress violence as an element of Venezuelan culture.
Chávez’ failure to invest in public infrastructure is another looming liability. On August 25, a tremendous explosion rocked the Amuay Refinery in Northwestern Venezuela, killing nearly 50 people. Amuay is Venezuela’s largest oil refinery, processing about 640,000 barrels per day. Angel Mora, a former maintenance worker at the facility, said that he could smell propane in the air before the blast. Gas leak alarms intended to alert local residents never sounded. Communities have been complaining about lack of proper drainage to control floods, and an important interstate bridge collapsed earlier this summer. This comes as the government builds a $140 million museum/mausoleum in Caracas, ostensibly for the late independence campaigner Simón Bolívar.
In the election between Capriles and Chávez, the Venezuelan people have the vote, but the final say may fall to a fourth party – the military. In 2010, Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva proclaimed the army to be “wedded” to the chavista movement. Rangel Silva has been accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of assisting drug traffickers; he and other military officials may be frightened of losing Chávez’ protection. However, Capriles does have one precedent to draw on in dealing with the army. That is the 2007 student movement that defeated Chávez’ controversial slate of constitutional amendments, among them the abolition of presidential term limits (this would have permitted Chávez to be president for life). The students used a campaign of peaceful but noticeable public disobedience. For example, the students would poise roadblocks, and only allow motorists to pass if the driver could name one of Chávez’ controversial amendments.
The students forced the regime into a difficult choice: either accept campaigning against the referendum, or resort to violent suppression of youngsters on the streets. When Venezuelans voted down the referendum in 2007, repression was too high a price to pay to overturn the result. Leaders of this movement included Yon Goicoechea and Douglas Barrios. In explaining the movement’s focus on impressing the military to journalist William Dobson, Goicoechea states “You have to win, and you have to have the Army. If one of those elements fails, you lose.” Douglas Barrios offers the solution: “…we wanted to create a credible threat, saying that if you don’t recognize the official result, you’re going to have to use an incredible amount of force.” It worked 5 years ago, and I’ll bet these guys will try it again if the situation arises.
 “Venezuela’s Presidential Campaign: Mano a Mano.” The Economist. February 11, 2012; P.G. “Venezuela’s Presidential Campaign: And in the Blue Corner…” The Economist, Americas View. February 13, 2012.
P.G. “Crime in Venezuela: Me or Your Own Eyes.” The Economist: Americas View. July 21, 2012.
 Vyas, Kejal and Ezequiel Minaya. “Venezuela Death Toll Rises After Refinery Blast.” The Wall Street Journal. August 26, 2012; Minaya, Ezequiel. “Deadly Blast in Venezuela Marks Failing Infrastructure.” The Wall Street Journal. August 28, 2012.
 “Venezuela’s Army: The Vote That Counts.” The Economist. August 11, 2012.
 Dobson, William J. “Wanna Beat Hugo Chávez?” Slate Magazine. June 5, 2012.