DYER: Might this be Hugo Chavez’s swan song?
It is imaginable — not certain, but certainly possible — that Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s strongman ruler since 1998, will lose the presidential election on Sunday, Oct. 7.
The most recent opinion polls showed his challenger, Henrique Capriles, has closed the gap between them to only five per cent or less of the popular vote.
If Chavez loses, would he actually hand over power peacefully?
He says he would, of course — but he also says it’s an irrelevant question since he will surely win.
“It is written,” he tells his supporters reassuringly. But, it is not.
Chavez really could lose this time as 30 opposition parties, ranging from the centre-left to the far right, have finally chosen a single candidate for the presidency.
Moreover, Capriles is no Mitt Romney.
He knows the votes of the poor matter.
In previous elections, the Venezuelan opposition railed against Chavez’s “socialism” and Marxism and lost.
Capriles, by contrast, promises to retain most of Chavez’s social-welfare policies, which in the past 12 years have poured almost $300 billion into programs to improve literacy, extend high-school education, improve health care, build housing for the homeless and subsidize household purchases from groceries to appliances.
Capriles can make those promises because, like Chavez, he can pay for them out of the country’s huge oil revenues. He has to make them because poorer Venezuelans — and most Venezuelans are poor — won’t vote for a candidate who would end all that.
However, Capriles says he will spend that money more effectively, with less corruption, and a lot of people believe him. It would not be hard to be more efficient than Chavez’s ramshackle administration.
Capriles also has the advantage of being 18 years younger and a lot fitter than the incumbent, who has been fighting cancer for the past 15 months.
Chavez says it is cured now, but physically he is clearly not the man he was. Some of his own supporters suspect he is not long for this world — and, while they still love Chavez himself, they neither love nor trust the people around him, those who might seize power when he was gone.
Moreover, though Chavez’s rule has benefited the poor in many ways, they are still poor.
Venezuela’s economy has grown far more slowly than those of its big neighbours, Brazil and Colombia, even though it has enjoyed the advantages of big oil exports and a tenfold rise in the world oil price.
Indeed, almost all the growth in Venezuela’s economy since Chavez took power is due to higher oil prices; most other parts of the economy have shrunk.
And, while oil revenues have been big enough — $980 billion during Chavez’s presidency — to sustain subsidies at their current level, they will never be enough to transform the entire economy.
You can work it out on the back of an envelope.
There are almost 30-million Venezuelans. Even if all of that $980 billion had been shared among them during Chavez’s 12 years in power, they would only have realized about $3,000 per person, per year.
Since oil revenue also had to pay for everything from defence to road construction, the real number was more like $1,000 per person, per year.
That’s nice to have, but it’s not going to transform lives. In fact, many people now feel that they are sliding backward again, for inflation has been about 1,000 per cent since 1998, 10 times worse than in neighbouring countries.
Meanwhile, the shelves in government-subsidized food shops are bare most of the time.
It’s like the old Soviet Union. When a shipment of some basic commodity finally arrives, it is snapped up instantly and then there is nothing until the next delivery.
Nationalization and central planning didn’t do the old communist states of Europe any good and it has not worked in Venezuela, either.
Something radical must be done to get the real, non-oil economy growing at a decent rate.
So, even Chavez loyalists can be tempted by a politician who promises to keep subsidies, but to scrap antique Marxist dogmatism that cripples the economy.
Capriles is exactly that politician and, therefore, he really might win the election.
What would probably happen is a grudging, but peaceful, hand-over of power to the newly elected President Capriles.
And, for all his bluff and bluster about defending the “Bolivarian revolution,” he may actually respect a democratic vote that goes against him.
Whether his colleagues and cronies would feel the same way is another question, but they could hardly reject an outcome that Chavez himself accepted.
This thing could still end well.