The beginning of the end for Chávez?
As the 2012 presidential elections in Venezuela draw nearer, the latest opinion polls put support for President Hugo Chávez at its lowest ever level, and, for the first time, below the proportion of the population supporting the opposition. According to Datanálisis, one of the most respected polling firms in Venezuela, 26% of Venezuelans say they will vote for Chávez in 2012, compared to 28% for the opposition and 34% who remain undecided. Opinion polls are often inaccurate signals of voter intention. More compelling evidence for Chávez’s decline was provided by the September 2010 parliamentary elections in which the opposition coalition (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD) won half of the popular vote, although this only resulted in 40% of the Assembly seats because Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) won the majority of the first-past-the-post seats.
One of the prime reasons for the fall in support for the government is the dramatic rise in violent crime across Venezuela. The 2010 Global Peace Index ranked Venezuela 122nd out of 149 countries, a position that has worsened since 2007 when the index was created. The problem is aggravated by a lack of government statistics – the Interior Ministry last produced a report on crime in 2004. However, a report out last year by the Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (OVV), an NGO, showed that the murder rate in Venezuela has quadrupled over Chávez’s time in power, from 4,550 homicides in 1999 to 16,047 in 2009. This equates to two Venezuelans killed every hour. Indeed, Caracas, with a murder rate of 140 per 100,000 inhabitants, is the second most dangerous city in the western hemisphere, after Ciudad Juárez in Mexico.
Roberto Briceño Leon, OVV director and Professor of Criminology at the Central University of Venezuela and the Sorbonne in Paris, believes the problem is due to a weak judicial system and inefficient and corrupt policing. These problems are by no means unique to Venezuela. However, such a dramatic increase in insecurity clearly is, and it is exacting a steady toll on Chávez’s popularity. Venezuelans regularly cite crime and insecurity as their top concerns in opinion polls. Chávez’s response has been to create a new police force, the Policía Nacional Bolivariana, raise police pay, and blame the rise in crime variously on inequality caused by previous governments, Colombian drug-trafficking gangs, and the United States. Perhaps more worryingly for Chávez has been the reported emergence of paramilitary groups, such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Venezuela, in states like Táchira.
The group has said that it aims to put an end to the crime and delinquency that has been rising in the region, as well as to denounce the presence of Colombian guerrilla groups in the country whose presence is tacitly approved by senior military and government figures. Given the Colombian precedent, where the emergence of similar groups rapidly led to their evolution into heavily armed criminal gangs who perpetrated numerous massacres and other grave crimes, the government’s neglect of security on the Colombian border may well be coming back to haunt it.
Economy in red
Evidence from most sources indicates that the Venezuelan economy is struggling. According to the Banco Central de Venezuela, while the price of oil has rebounded after the 2008 crisis, the economy has not. Venezuelans are suffering declining real wages and persistent shortages of staple goods (meat is the latest to become scarce), in addition to regular energy and water shortages. Inflation, projected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to run at 32% in 2011, is causing havoc in the economy. In marked contrast with other countries in the region, which are struggling to stop their currencies from becoming over-valued, Venezuela devalued the bolívar last year in an attempt to increase the value in bolivars of its oil income and thus to reduce the budget deficit.
Despite Chávez famously railing against Venezuelans for taking too long in the shower, claiming three minutes is more than enough, water scarcity continues to afflict the population – in urban areas in particular. The lack of water is part of a wider domestic energy problem that has led to frequent water shortages and rolling electricity blackouts. This is in part down to a prolonged dry spell in the country which has disproportionately affected energy generation because around 80% of Venezuela’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power. However, the energy sectors have also suffered from years of neglect and are in dire need of investment in order to boost capacity to meet growing demand. As part of wider economic problems, these difficulties may also be taking a toll on Chávez’s popularity. No people approve of a government presiding over a deteriorating economy so we should not be surprised to think that this state of affairs may be affecting the popularity of the PSUV.
All of the problems outlined above may well have increased in importance for the average Venezuelan for another reason. In some ways Chávez may actually be a victim of his own success. The economic problems notwithstanding, Chávez has undoubtedly achieved some significant decreases in poverty and extreme poverty, which, according to the Venezuelan Instituto Nacional de Estadística, fell respectively from 55% and 25% in 1997, to 25% and 7% in 2009. This very improvement may paradoxically be responsible for Chávez’s falling popularity. Now that a significant chunk of Venezuelans do not have to worry as much about fulfilling their basic needs, other problems may be taking centre stage. Rolling electricity blackouts or intermittent water supply are only problems if you live in an electrified house with a water mains connection. The big improvement in living conditions and access to potable water over Chávez’s terms has brought new problems to replace the old. Blackouts and irregular water supply are now things that affect people’s daily lives and are powerful electoral factors precisely because of the day-to-day nature of their impact.
Also, once basic needs become less of an issue, people may have more time to reflect on their political and social rights. Chávez’s record on human rights has long been regarded as poor at best, with Venezuelan prisons being among the worst in the continent, and his persecution of political activists and dissidents being condemned by everyone from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Organisation of American States, to international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The recent case of María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge imprisoned in 2009, now under house arrest and still awaiting trial, has been gaining significant attention both in Venezuela and from international organisations. Ms Afiuni’s offence was to have ordered the release of Eligio Cedeño, a banker who was another self-declared political prisoner, on the grounds that he had been detained for almost three years without trial. In doing so, she was not only applying Venezuelan law (which limits pre-trial detention to no more than two years) but also a declaration on Mr Cedeño’s case by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. President Chávez called her a ‘bandit’ and had her arrested. Just a couple of weeks ago the UN Working Group called for the immediate release of Ms Afiuni.
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based lobby group, report that Venezuela has fallen from 115th position (2006) to 133rd (2010) in their Press Freedom Index as their research finds that the country has become steadily more dangerous for journalists. Chávez’s negative record in respect to civil, political and human liberties may be taking a toll on his popularity as Venezuelans, who are worrying less about their immediate standard of living, have come to regard these rights as relatively more important and are prepared to express their dissatisfaction over the matter in their vote.
According to most analyses, Chávez has responded negatively to this perceived drop in support. The recent decree reforming the armed forces law gives the armed forces permission to distribute weapons to pro-Chávez militias which are thought to number around 120,000 – effectively doubling the size of the Venezuelan armed forces. The NGO Control Ciudadano para la Seguridad, Rocío San Miguel, experts in the field of the armed forces, say the new law is worrying precisely because it arms civilians without demanding that they are trained as military professionals – something they argue is in flagrant violation of the Venezuelan constitution. Arming pro-government militias is hardly likely to persuade Venezuelans who are undecided or who side with the opposition, that the Chávez administration has their best interests at heart. Rather, it is more indicative of how worried the Chávez administration actually is at the possibility of losing the presidential election next year. Furthermore, the Colombian experience has shown the devastation that government-linked paramilitaries can cause in terms of social, human and political rights.
We should not make the mistake of thinking that the game is up for Chávez just yet. The election remains more than 18 months away and Chávez can call on significant state resources for a sustained election campaign. Furthermore, he can point to substantial and legitimate improvements in the standard of living and other development indicators. However, for the first time, whether Chávez’s vision for Venezuela is one shared by the majority of his compatriots now appears to be in serious doubt. Numerous reasons have been given in this article as to why support for the Venezuelan president has fallen, and the truth is likely to be a combination of several of these rather than any one in particular.