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Venezuela

Cancer? Capriles? Coup? Hugo Chavez Faces Tricky Reelection Bid In Venezuela

Analysis: Venezuela could be in for a wild ride between now and October, when voters decide whether to reelect their ailing president, Hugo Chávez, or hand the job to his youthful challenger, 39-year-old Enrique Capriles.

Susan Kaufman

There is much that could stand in the way of Hugo Chávez's reelection in Venezuela.

For starters, he faces a formidable challenger, after Enrique Capriles scored a resounding victory in the country's first ever primary contest in February. More than three million Venezuelans cast their votes in the primary, far more than anyone expected. And unlike in the past, this time around the opposition is committed to standing united behind just one candidate.

There are other reasons too why Capriles, 39, is better positioned than previous candidates to give Chávez a real run for his money. Good-looking, dynamic and charismatic, Capriles is the center-left governor of Miranda, the second most populous state; and because of his age, he also enjoys some natural separation from the country's much maligned pre-Chávez political establishment.

In order to win the popular vote, Capriles must promise to fix the damage Chávez has inflicted on the dynamism of the Venezuelan economy, and yet somehow assure people that he will maintain – and maybe even expand – social benefits. Capriles, in other words, is presenting himself as a follower of the Lula development model rather than of the failed, spendthrift Chávez approach.

Because of Chávez's failures, in fact, the Venezuelan poor are no longer so overwhelming supportive of his government. The president's economic policies have pushed inflation near 30%, among the highest rates in Latin America and around the world. Many analysts are already forecasting a third devaluation of the local currency after the elections.

There have also been food shortages, blackouts and rising unemployment. And oil production, Venezuela's primary source of revenue, has fallen under Chávez's watch from 3.1 million barrels per day to 2.1 million. With oil prices at nearly $100 per barrel, the production drop is costing Venezuela billions.

October is anybody's guess

If Capriles is able to compete with Chávez on equal footing, and if he is able to run a campaign that connects with poor sectors of the population, he'll have a good chance of winning the Oct. 7 election. In Venezuela, however, competing on equal terms with the government is virtually impossible. President Chávez controls the media, which began attacking Capriles as soon as he won the opposition primary. The government, furthermore, controls the main institutions of the so-called Bolivarian democracy, as well as the country's oil wealth. It will no doubt use the latter to increase public spending this year as a way to boost popularity.

What all of this amounts to, is that for first time since Chávez came to power, the presidency is very much up for grabs. If, as the election approaches, polls show Capriles in the lead, there's a real possibility that Chávez could postpone or even cancel the election – either that or end up manipulating the results. If that happens, it's not out of the question that Venezuela could see massive protests like those that have taken place in the Arab world over the past year. Street violence is thus a risk, as is a military coup.

The other big question, of course, is Chávez's health. If his cancer worsens, it could prevent him from campaigning. In that case, he might designate his brother to campaign in his stead, or as his successor if he ends up unable to lead.

There is a real debate over whether chavismo can exist without Chávez. Cuba has undergone a reasonably ordered transition from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raúl, in part because of Fidel's slow deterioration, but also because the Cuban revolution, after facing so many challenges over the years, is much more institutionalized. That may not be the case in Venezuela, where Chávez's followers – already divided into various factions – may not stay united should their common leader die.

Read the original story in Spanish

Photo - Roberto Stuckert

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