Venezuela Anticipates Contested Presidential Election

| Sept. 13, 2011 |

Published by Minyanville

Talk in Venezuela is turning rapidly to next year’s presidential elections, the date of which was just today announced to be October 7, ending months of speculation. With primaries due in February, there have been rumors that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had ordered the elections brought forward from the traditional date in December to March. Now, the opposition have time to successfully campaign for their chosen candidate.

This October date will also give Chávez a little more time to recover from chemotherapy. “I have faith, my recovery is going well,” the socialist leader told state television this week, announcing that a fourth round of treatment would be taking place soon. “After this chemotherapy, the last one God-willing, I will undoubtedly start physical exercise.”

Popular state-governor Henrique Capriles Rodonski is thought to be most likely to win primaries in February and take on Chávez in October. He is the first Venezuelan politician to rival Chávez in both the polls and the charisma that underlies his foe’s success.

A Datanalisis poll released late last week showed that Capriles had around 36% support, very roughly matched with Chávez’s 38% in the survey with a 3% margin of error. “We've never seen any candidate challenging Cháez with such close numbers," Luis Vicente Leon, director of the firm, told Associated Press.

The 39-year-old Capriles likes to liken himself to the immensely popular former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose brand of socialism has turned Brazil’s economy around, with pro-business policies that have funded social programs for the poor. That middle-ground brand of socialism is being emulated across Latin America and is being seen as the antithesis to Chávez’s old guard ideology, which now survives primarily in his own country and Cuba.

Capriles’ charisma shines through in the way he talks of the Chávez-government: “Old chocolate may look good, but when you try it, it's lost its good taste. That's what's happened with this government: The chocolate is old now. We have to try a new chocolate.”

International relations

The old chocolate has come under new criticism from the United States this week as Washington accused four high-ranking Venezuelan officials of helping Colombian guerrillas traffic weapons and smuggle drugs, demonstrating Chávez’s close ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Venezuela’s foreign minister Nicolas Maduro was quick to respond. “We repudiate it,” he said, describing the US as the “cause of this sickness of narco-trafficking.” There are now seven top Venezuelan officials on the US Treasury’s blacklist.

While Venezuela-US relations are unlikely to warm until Chávez is out of power, those between Venezuela and Colombia have shown signs of warming over the previous year, thanks to Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’ increased efforts to placate Caracas.

The two countries have seen relations that after a diplomatic freeze ordered by Chávez after former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe’s suggestions last year that Venezuela was harboring FARC rebels.

Back then, Santos accused Chávez of trying to have him killed before, in March this year, declaring the two best of friends. There are economic forces underlying the friendship, however. In 2007, bilateral trade between the two nations hit $7 billion. Last year this figure dropped to $1.2 billion and both presidents will want to see a return to previous figures.

Venezuela distances from world economy

In a continuation of Chávez’s moves to distance Venezuela from the “dictatorship” of the US dollar, the president has taken steps to pull out of the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a unit of the World Bank that settles investor disputes.

The news will bolster analysts’ views that the underlying reason Chávez is keen to reorganize reserves and pull gold back to Caracas is to protect Venezuelan assets from seizure by foreign governments, after his many expropriations of foreign companies.

Last month, the firebrand leader announced that he would be rearranging foreign reserves, of which $6 billion are held in banks in the United Kingdom and Switzerland, to countries including China, Russia and Brazil. He would also be repatriating 211 tons of Venezuelan gold reserves from the Bank of England, Barclays and the Bank of Nova Scotia. This prompted many to question, "How Will Chávez Move All That Gold?"

World’s lowest gas prices

Venezuela has topped a list of countries providing the world’s cheapest gas. The subsidy allowing consumers to fill up at $0.18 per gallon may sound attractive but it is driving the economy into the ground, losing it $21 billion annually at opportunity cost. Yet, Chávez will not be able to raise prices so close to an election. Last time a government attempted this in 1989, fatal riots ensued that killed hundreds.