Publish in Perspectives - Monday, October 1, 2012
A victory by Hugo Chavez would mean economic collapse and this would eventually bring about political collapse, the author predicts. (Photo: Marcelo Garcia/Prensa Presidencial)
If he wins, Henrique Capriles will try national reconciliation, but will face opposition from many Chavez loyalists, the author predicts. (Photo: Capriles campaign)
Whether Chavez wins or loses the presidential elections, Venezuela will face major difficulties the next few years.
BY GUSTAVO CORONEL
Regardless of who wins the October 7th presidential election, Venezuela faces difficult times. The country is deeply divided and two portions of society do no longer see each other as political adversaries but as enemies. The country walks a thin line between social unrest and social violence. There is an underlying national mood of resentment that will slow down all attempts at re-establishing a sense of common purpose, at least in the short term. This is a legacy of the last 25 years of Venezuelan political history. A first half was characterized by mediocre democratic political leadership during the second Carlos Andres Perez and Rafael Caldera presidential terms and the second by the revengeful and furiously populist presidency of Hugo Chavez. While significant social exclusion of the poor did take place during the first half of this period, social exclusion of the middle class has been a main trait of the second half. The result has been a zero sum struggle between highly competitive and hostile social groups at the expense of the nation.
President Chavez has declared, multiple times, that a victory of Mr. Capriles would mean civil war. Mr. Capriles has wisely avoided open confrontation, but he realizes that his electoral victory would mark the initial point of an intensely bitter and more open struggle between the two halves of the nation. The reason is tragically simple: half the nation is captive of the state’s welfare system, highly dependent on government handouts and subsidies. Much of the population has become accustomed to this way to do things in Venezuela and believe that such a system can last forever. They seem convinced that it is possible to have rights but not duties. A Capriles government would have a much different philosophy of national development. It would have to try to dismantle this perverse populist system in which benefits and services pretend to be free but are of poor quality and conditioned to political loyalty, leading to a patron-client relationship.
Any attempt by the Capriles government to change the current model would be considered as a declaration of war by the followers of Chavez’s Venezuela. Since Chavez has been quite successful in convincing his half of the country that the welfare state can be a permanent fixture, they will see any changes as hostile. Any action on the part of the Capriles government to bring rationality into the formulation of economic and social policies will be considered by these groups as a threat to what they consider their birth rights.
On the other hand, a victory by Mr. Chavez would mean a continuation of the current state of things. The private sector would keep declining in importance, alliances of the Chavez government with ideological friends that receive our money such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Belarus, Nicaragua and Cuba, would be intensified. The oil industry would continue to be contaminated by non-core activities that would demand much of the capital the industry needs for re-investment. The middle class would keep as the punching ball of the government since it still has resources to be plundered and still prefers to behave democratically, in spite of being treated undemocratically.
Under Mr. Chavez the nation would further travel the road to economic collapse and this would eventually bring about political collapse. While I consider this process inevitable, I also regret that the nation will have to pay an enormous price getting there.
These are some of the reasons why I believe that Venezuela will face difficult times in the next few years, under any of the foreseeable political scenarios. A major effort at national reconciliation will not be possible under a Chavez government but it might be possible under a Capriles government. This young man has shown a great ability to listen and to connect with the population at large. He has a sympathetic demeanor and has shown to be persistent and patient.
The main malady of Venezuela is not economic, although this is a major disaster. It is spiritual. Only a miracle of political leadership “a la Mandela” can save us from trying to exterminate each other. I am not certain that Capriles can do it but I am sure that he has a much better chance to do it than Mr. Chavez. At least he will give it a good try while Mr. Chavez has no intention of trying.
A variation on these basic scenarios is an electoral victory of Mr. Chavez followed by his death or by his inability to hold office. He is an ill man. I am not sure, however, of what is the worst of his two disabling conditions: his cancer or his mental ailment. I suspect he is more mentally than physically handicapped. Only the extreme environment of terror prevailing in official circles has prevented Chavez from being declared mentally unfit for office. It would take many pages to list all the signs of his mental afflictions, but only one example will suffice: he recently addressed the nation, in a compulsory hook–up of all Venezuelan TV and radio stations (the country has had to suffer hundreds of these), to say that he considered his electoral victory as “critical for the future of humanity.” This over-blown belief in his importance has a name in psychiatric literature. To the common folk it seems to indicate quite clearly that Venezuela is now dealing with a tropical version of Caligula.
History has shown that the Caligulas do not have a happy ending.
Gustavo Coronel, a 31-year oil industry veteran, was a member of the first board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and is the author of several books. He wrote this column for Latinvex.
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