WORLD

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR US?

As Hugo Chávez spreads his largesse, Venezuelans want in on the action

ISABEL VINCENT December 11 2006
WORLD

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR US?

As Hugo Chávez spreads his largesse, Venezuelans want in on the action

ISABEL VINCENT December 11 2006

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR US?

WORLD

As Hugo Chávez spreads his largesse, Venezuelans want in on the action

ISABEL VINCENT

It may be a measure of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez’s ego that, in his country’s current presidential election campaign, he has picked an opponent far stronger than his oil-rich country is able to produce. Time and again, as his mighty re-election machine rumbles on, he has exhorted Venzuelans “to vote against the devil,” a reference to U.S. President George W. Bush, whom he compared to Satan during a speech in September at the United Nations. “In this election,” Chávez has declared at numerous campaign rallies, “there are only two candidates—Hugo Chávez and George W. Bush.”

Not quite. There is also state governor Manuel Rosales, candidate of the Democratic Action opposition (the party of former Venezuelan president Carlos Andres Perez, who governed the country during the oil boom of the late 1970s). A veteran politician who is uniting Venezuela’s extremely fragmented opposition movement in this campaign, Rosales, 54, has never lost an election. (He is in his second term as governor of oil-rich Zulia state, and his 27th year in politics.) He is astute enough to realize that his streak is likely to end when Venezuelans vote on Dec. 3—he has been trailing Chávez in the polls by 20 points. Still, as the only viable opposition candidate in a country where nearly every aspect of life is controlled by the Chávez regime, Rosales makes a strong point in his campaign speeches—that Chávez has been too busy doling out oil wealth to curry favour on the international stage, and has done little for Venezuelans at home since first taking office in 1998.

Should he be elected president, Rosales has promised to address that inequity—by distributing a black debit card to Venezuela’s poor to allow them to access directly 20 per cent of all of the country’s oil earnings. “It may be a lot of money,” said Rosales, when questioned about the amount he has pledged to distribute to an estimated two million

impoverished Venezuelans with the card, known locally as Mi Negra. “But it is much less than what this government has given other countries.”

Indeed, in the last year alone, Chávez has been working actively, with some success, to influence presidential election campaigns from Peru to Ecuador and Nicaragua. He has supplied left-wing Sandinista municipalities in Nicaragua with cheap oil, and has even contributed to Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival

parade to make sure Latin Americans back his vision of a Latin America free from U.S. influence. Back home, meanwhile, oil seems to be fuelling a heady boom. This year, the Venezuelan economy is set to grow by nine per cent, and many Venezuelans are enjoying a wave of prosperity fuelled by high oil prices— currently $59 a barrel—and cheap credit.

But despite the oil riches—Venezuela is the fourth largest supplier of oil to the U.S., after Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabiamany of the country’s 25 million people are living beneath the poverty line. That is in spite of millions of dollars allocated to social and health programs, known as misiones, under the Chávez regime. Although the misiones have met with some success, especially in outback parts of the country where the government has sent Cuban nurses and physicians to conduct routine examinations and surgery, there have been accusations that many of these government-funded health initiatives are mismanaged and corrupt. And, says Rosales, Venezuelans need good jobs, not handouts. “The great majority does not accept the welfare of the government and is demanding a system with greater balance, stable employment, a good house and a good system of health and education,” he recently told Brazil’s 0 Globo newspaper, adding that Chávez “wasted” an estimated US$400 million in corruption. “He is giving our money away to other countries—building hospitals in other countries, giving cheap

gas, when the country is falling to pieces.” Others share that view. “As a result of an autocratic style, incompetence, hundreds of unfulfilled promises, widespread corruption by him and his cronies, Cuban influence in our society and way of life, and billions of dollars in gifts to other countries to buy international support for the so-called revolution, Chávez has lost the favour of the people,” said Luis E. Giusti, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in a recent interview with Maclean’s. Giusti, who was CEO of the Venezuelan state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), from 1994 to 1999, says that if Chávez wins another six-year term, Venezuela’s domestic situation will deteriorate. “Things will get worse as a

ROSALES MAKES A STRONG POINT—CHÁVEZ HAS ACCOMPLISHED LITTLE FOR HIS PEOPLE

result of his [Chávez’s] growing disrespect for the Venezuelan people, and also as a result of the imminent approval of a new constitution that resembles the Cuban one,” he said (among other things, Chávez wants to extend the president’s term in office).

Few in the opposition believe that this election will be free and fair. In the past, Venezuelans in the civil service have suffered reprisals for voting against Chávez, who currently controls 100 per cent of the legislature, most of the Supreme Court, and most of the fivemember National Electoral Council. As Ros-

ales noted in an interview with foreign journalists in Caracas last week, “Chávez controls the judicial powers, the ministries, the ombudsman, and four of the five members of the National Electoral Council.”

Last month, the opposition released a video that shows the current head of PDVSA threatening to fire oil workers if they vote against Chávez. “We are going to do all we have to do to help our president,” says oil minister Rafael Ramirez (also the minister of energy) in the video, recently made available to the Venezuelan media. “And whoever doesn’t feel comfortable with this idea, should give up his job.” In 2004, many government employees did lose their jobs when their names turned up on lists of those who had signed a petition for a recall referendum, which Chávez later won. Last December, the opposition withdrew its candidates from congressional elections. As a result of the boycott, Chávez’s supporters made a clean sweep in a vote where only 17 per cent of eligible Venezuelans turned out to cast their ballot.

Chávez has also been accused of using state resources to finance his campaign. Last

month, he paid civil servants their annual Christmas bonuses, equivalent to three months’ salary, a month earlier than normal. The opposition called the move a campaign ploy to buy votes. But despite the obstacles, Chávez’s opponents are determined to speak out against his government. “The opposition is pumped up with new resolve, especially in view of the risks represented by the eventual new constitution,” said Giusti. “Nobody wants to lose the country and its values, so everybody has become more open and fearless.” M