If Henrique Capriles Radonski triumphs in Venezuela’s elections on Oct. 7, it will be a democratic feat without precedent in Latin American history.
It is possible that an opposition candidate has never faced a force like that represented by Hugo Chavez. His government doesn’t employ physical violence as a state policy, but it exercises another kind of coercive and menacing violence, manifold and oppressive. Its power comes from the ballot box under the tight control of arms -- his arms.
When democracy finally edged out dictatorships in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, the military establishment -- because of public repudiation of its genocidal acts -- found itself in irreversible retreat.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, perhaps the only case of an authoritarian leftist regime democratically overturned was that of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1990. But the difficulties then weren’t as great as those involved in the Venezuelan process, for the very reason that the Sandinista government -- already in decline at the end of the 1980s -- wasn’t democratic, nor did it pretend to be.
Either way, whether against the militarist right or the revolutionary left, democracy wasn’t obliged to retrace a path, but to forge it.
In Venezuela, the democrats must go back to before the beginning: They must restore true meaning to what has become a corrupted democracy. Chavez’s explicit aim has been to rule until at least 2030, when he will be 76 (and if he makes it to 76, there is no question he will want to continue). But unlike Fidel Castro of Cuba (and the Sandinistas or the old South American dictators such as Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia of Paraguay or Juan Vicente Gomez of Venezuela), Chavez has astutely used democracy to do away with democracy.
He has accomplished this step by step, institution by institution, imposing his designs and spokesmen on the Legislature, the judiciary, the fiscal and electoral bodies. If he hasn’t finished his demolition work, it is because a broad sector of Venezuelan society hasn’t forgotten the meaning of freedom. In an unequal contest (because Chavez enjoys the private property of public resources, and uses them lavishly to his advantage), that sector has displayed an admirable spirit of unity, and it has in Capriles a young, sensitive and visionary leader. The possibilities of victory are real, but the adversary -- despite (or thanks to) his illness -- is formidable.
Chavez isn’t just a caudillo: He is a redeemer. To play up that twisted religious dimension, he has abused the media pulpit. For many years, he appeared on the Sunday program “Alo, Presidente,” a six-hour-long reality show in which Chavez delivered monologues, danced, sang, recited, read letters, declared his love for the people, railed at the empire and the “pitiyanquis” (or “little Yankees,” the purported allies of the U.S. within Venezuela), gave lessons on “21st-century socialism,” recalled scenes from his autobiography (which in his peculiar understanding of it is the incarnation of Venezuelan history) and issued thundering decrees.
Before his Cabinet members (all dressed in red, silent and as obedient as children in a classroom), he dictated expropriations, troop movements, diplomatic insults and public policies.
Many people in Venezuelan society rejected this spectacle. But more than half of the electorate celebrated it. For them, Chavez has been the reincarnation of Simon Bolivar and even Christ’s representative on earth, now more so than ever as Chavez has turned his grievous illness into a public calvary.
Beyond that incarnation is his social role. A considerable number of poor Venezuelans have been grateful to him for the “misiones” he established in 2003 (staffed mainly by Cubans, who have also taken charge of the security apparatus) with the aim of providing health care, food and education.
Though many of these programs have faced serious operational problems and are designed not to promote people’s autonomy, but rather their dependence on government, the “Chavistas” don’t see it that way. The near monopoly on public truth (which Chavez has enjoyed since he expropriated the major public-television channels) has masked reality. Millions of Venezuelans take his word as the mirror of truth, particularly if they are public employees whose income depends -- or so they believe -- on his munificence.
But the concealment of the truth has been massive. Will Venezuelans ever assess the incredible squandering of the almost $700 billion that passed through the coffers of Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state-owned oil company that was once a bigger example of modernization than Brazil’s Petroleo Brasileiro SA? It’s impossible to know.
Many understand that Venezuela is in the midst of a crisis: Inflation and crime rates are among the highest in South America, and there are persistent shortages of goods. Basic services are also in chaos as a result of harassment in the private sector and because of inefficiency and corruption.
The Capriles campaign has been brave and conciliatory. His proposals seek to restore financial sense and protect social progress (real or perceived). Chavez has accused him of wanting to end the “misiones”; Capriles insists he will touch them only to improve them. Chavez points to him as the reincarnation of the political old guard of Venezuela; Capriles has shown how the bad practices of Chavismo are similar to those of the so- called Fourth Republic and pledged that his government will correct both.
Chavez has vilified him incessantly with crude insults and has committed the sacrilege of calling him a Nazi, knowing that Capriles’s great-grandparents were exterminated by the Nazis. Capriles, meanwhile, has remained unruffled.
Anything can happen, including an outbreak of the endemic violence that has plagued Venezuelan history. The fascination with a sick Chavez and his far-reaching control of the state apparatus may bring him victory.
If this is the case, the opposition must press on without pause or discouragement. Chavez may triumph, but it will be a hollow victory, and after his eventual death, divisions within his group as well as internal and international pressures may pave the way for a return to full democracy. Such a development would have the additional effect of precipitating the Cuban transition, drawing us nearer to the emergence -- unprecedented in history -- of an entirely democratic Latin America.
This outcome, which until recently would have seemed utopian, is at hand if Capriles wins. We have witnessed such a result before, in the December 2007 referendum, when Venezuelans, against all forecasts, voted down a plan for constitutional reform that would have turned the country into a new Cuba.
I have faith in that civic miracle. And I hope that such a victory will herald not only the return of democracy but something much more important and necessary: the reconciliation of the Venezuelan family, divided today by an ideological hatred that is alien to it, that has poisoned it for almost 15 years, and that has choked all possibility of harmony.
(Enrique Krauze is a historian and author of “Mexico: A Biography of Power” and of “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America.” The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.)
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