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Venezuela has captured media attention worldwide during the last few months for its presidential elections. On 7th October, the country was asked to decide with their votes whether to continue with incumbent president Hugo Chávez’s 21st century ‘Bolivarian revolution’ for at least another six years, or to adopt a new path with opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
The decision was announced on Sunday at 10pm Venezuelan time, declaring Chávez’s victory with 54.42% of the votes against 44.97% for his opponent Capriles. This election showed a record voter turnout (over 80%) and the lowest percentage of votes for Chávez (compared to the 1998 presidential election, in which he obtained 56% of the votes, the 2000 election with 59.76%, and 2006 with 62.84%).
Both Chávez and Capriles were quick to accept the electoral results after they were announced on Sunday night. Chávez declared a “heroic victory of the people” at a “perfect battle” and promised to be the best president ever in the upcoming years. Capriles, meanwhile, accepted the victory of his opponent and thanked the Venezuelans who gave their votes for an alternative future: “We didn’t get the presidency today, but we’ve got the commitment, the love of six millions Venezuelans!” He vowed to continue in opposition, assuring he had increased his political weight in the country and inviting people to “continue the path” to democracy and progress.
The stakes were high in the run up to the vote: for Chávez’s supporters, the survival of the Bolivarian revolution was at stake. For the opposition, their chance to re-gain control of the country after 14 years. Tensions increased as 7th October approached, and the two starkly different candidates ratcheted up their campaigns.
Hugo Chávez, a strong leader and favourite among the working classes (over 75% of the country’s population) became president in 1999, campaigning for a big number of social reforms and promising changes in the use of petroleum resources.
After taking office in 1998, Chávez kicked off an important number of social programmes aimed towards the poor. His famous ‘Misiones bolivarianas’ (Bolivarian Missions), named after the South American independence hero Simón Bolívar, direct over 40% of the national budget towards improvements in areas like education, public health, housing, and social justice. According to data supplied by CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, or ECLAC in English) the missions have had impressive results, including a reduction in the poverty rate from 49% in 1999 to 27% by end-2010 and in extreme poverty from 21.7% to 10.7%, as well as a decrease in infant mortality from 20.9 to 12.9 per 1,000 live births. Meanwhile, the secondary school enrollment rate rose from 48% to 71.8%.
These significant social changes have made Chávez very popular among poor people, who were finally granted access to basic rights previously denied to them. At the same time, during his 13 years in power the president’s radical reforms and confrontational style divided opinions and clashed with powerful economic, political, and media groups.
Chávez’s government has been heavily criticised in the business community for its economic policies, including an extensive nationalisation programme and tight state control on currency exchange, as well as for its failure to curb an inflation rate that for several years has been among the highest in the world. The opposition claims that most of the projects initiated by Chávez were abandoned half-way and that the numbers were made up by the official institutions.
Meanwhile, safety in the country’s main cities (Caracas has one of the world’s highest homicide rates) continues to be a major problem, as the number of daily murders rises every year. Chávez has also been accused of corruption and of clamping down on political opposition and free press – a claim strongly denied by the government.
Chávez’s challenger in the election, Henrique Capriles, is an opposite in several ways. He comes from a wealthy family and is the founder and leader of the Primero Justicia party, which promotes liberalism, integral humanism, and a free market economy. Capriles, who in 1998 became the youngest elected deputy in parliament, was mayor of Baruta when protesters laid siege to the Cuban embassy (located in Baruta) during the 2002 attempted coup against Chávez. In 2008, he was elected governor of the Miranda state, a position he held until June 2012.
As the representative of the united opposition, Capriles does not deny the achievements of the Bolivarian Missions and said during the campaign that he planned to continue with some of them if elected president. He even describes himself as central-left, as a response to the government calling him the representative of the right wing.
Capriles, however, proposed a different direction for the country, re-opening it for private business and foreign investments, which he says is the only way to realise the full potential of Venezuela’s massive oil wealth. During the campaign, he announced a possible change in trade relations with ALBA members, saying that Venezuela “cannot continue giving away our oil” (link). Such a position turned the governments of the ALBA countries against Capriles’ candidacy.
Alongside business groups and the upper-middle classes, Capriles also enjoys certain popularity among the youth, and put his age (40), ambitions and even physical attractiveness as arguments during the election campaign.
Both Chávez and Capriles, along with mass media and civil institutions, had expressed their concerns about the possibility of fraud and violations to the electoral law in election day. Chávez’s side reported a large number of violent accusations towards pro-government journalists during the election campaign. The main concerns of the opposition were related to issues with voter registration lists, migration of voters, media access and coverage, use of state resources, and again violence.
Nevertheless, international organisations and independent observers reported that elections were held in a democratic way, free from fraud. Pro-democracy NGO The Carter Center sent a study mission to Venezuela in February 2012 for a five-month period to follow election preparations and campaign conditions, collecting reports and interviewing officials from both Chávez’s and Capriles’ campaigns. The study found out that most concerns regarding the electoral process were irrelevant as the election system had been improving in the last decade.
However, some abuses have been reported, such as a wide usage of state resources for the campaign and unbalanced media coverage by both sides. The studies conducted by MUD, the political coalition that supports Capriles’ candidacy, reported improvements and satisfaction by the process. VotoJoven, a movement run by Venezuelan youth since 2010 with the aim of increasing the active participation of young people in the political life of the country, also acted as a public controller and observer, gathering complaints and examples of legal violations. On 7th October the organisation received 1,498 cases in Venezuela, most commonly technical problems with voting machines, long queues, confusions, problems with the verification process and propaganda.
One big historical improvement for election day was the implementation of a complex electronic voting system that aims to deliver transparency and vote integrity. The system includes fingerprint identification, manual verification, and use of electronic ballots. As well as tightening the security measures, it allowed for a faster vote count on election night.
The re-elected president Chávez promised to “improve, modify and renew” his administration and not to “eliminate the private sector”. Chávez asked not to be afraid of socialism but of capitalism, and gave the example of Europe, currently being challenged by a deep crisis. Whilst he officially takes office for his new term in January, he added that his new presidency started the moment he was re-elected, as “we are obliged to be better every day and efficient to respond to the people’s needs.”
However, not everyone sees the future of Venezuela as positively as Chávez. The New Yorker journalist and Latin American analyst Jon Lee Anderson says we could be facing the “final eclipse” of Chávez’s era, as inflation rates grow higher and the local currency is further devalued. He is sure that Chávez will go ahead with the implementation of his ’21st century Socialism’ doctrine, but stresses that the country will challenge him with the most urgent and crucial problems.
Venezuelans living abroad also have mixed feelings about the 7th October result. According to a World Bank report, in 2010 there were over 521,000 Venezuelans living overseas, most of them students in the universities of both the Americas and Europe (mainly Portugal and Spain) and families that migrated in the early 2000s. After the announcement of the election results, several young Venezuelans in Buenos Aires shared their plans for the future, which did not include going back to their home country. Though several admitted that they received a very good and free higher education back in Venezuela, their key concern was that they perceive no professional future for the youth, as they insist that the government does not support entrepreneurship and restricts private investment.
Another major concern lies in Chávez’s health situation. After extensive treatment in Cuba, the president claims he is cured of the cancer he was diagnosed with last year. But details of his illness remain unknown and concerns remain over his ability to endure another six years in power. The issue of his potential successor remains unresolved.
The significance of the 7th October result stretches beyond Venezuela, given the country’s importance for the future of the whole continent. So far Venezuela and Cuba are the only countries on the path to socialism that openly confront US geo-politics in the region. With one of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela has the political and economic muscle to take on the global superpower. Under Chávez, Venezuela has signed many oil contracts and cooperation agreements with other Latin American countries and has been a key driver in the formation of regional groups, such as Unasur and ALBA, designed to reduce US influence in the region.
Among the first leaders to congratulate Chávez on his victory were the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador, as well as María Castro, daughter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The US government did not congratulate Chávez directly, asking the new government to take into consideration the people who had not voted for him.