Chavez's New Election Strategy: Threaten Opponents with Jail

Venezuela is facing local and regional elections on November 23, and increasingly negative polls are troubling sitting president Hugo Chavez. Indeed, the triumphant Chavez of December 2006, reelected with 63% on a wave of unprecedented populist measures fueled by constantly increasing oil prices, believed he had it all. In two years he has been told otherwise.

First, his wish to change the constitution so as to be reelected as needed was voted down in the referendum of 2007.  Not only will he now have to leave office in January 2013, but a series of special powers he obtained to implement a socialist state has been rejected, justly perceived by the people as an authoritarian power grab. His internal image has also been tarnished by major errors such as closing the RCTV television station, whose soap operas were a favorite among the Chavista voters.

When the intrigues over the FARC hostage release went to the forefront with the capture of the Reyes laptops in the Ecuador jungle, it became clear that Chavez was not an honest broker but a party in the Colombian conflict. This became too much for international public opinion and now Venezuela and Chavez are considered pariah states, to the point that in their third debate Obama and McCain agreed at least on one thing: no more Chavez oil for the U.S.! We can guess that the halving of oil prices since the global economic crisis hit us has not improved the mood at Miraflores Palace, where more than ever the paranoia associated with leftist revolutions can now exert itself freely.

Of the 24 regional districts at stake, Chavismo holds 22. The opposition holds only the tourist mecca of Margarita and the biggest and wealthiest state of Venezuela, Zulia, of which Manuel Rosales is sitting governor since the year 2000. In any normal democracy such a historical but accidental majority is bound to diminish after four years, no matter how good the economic and administrative situation of the country is. But that is not the view with the Bolivarian Revolution of Chavez, who as it ages ungracefully tolerates dissent less and less.

The crop of Chavistas elected in 2000 and 2004 has proven to be a failure, with some honorable exceptions. The love story of Chavez with the masses seems to have started fraying as people get tired of Venezuela having become one of the countries with the highest crime rate. Public services and utilities are slowly but surely collapsing: we have had three -- three -- national power outages this year lasting several hours each. In some states power outages are almost a daily occurrence. These failures accompany others, such as the deficient official heath system in spite of the Cuban-inspired Barrio Adentro. Garbage has also become a major issue and mostly in Chavista-held cities such as Caracas, which is literally buried by tons of garbage while the free space left is occupied by informal street vendors.  This does not help the people that must spend hours in the hopelessly congested streets of Venezuela's main cities.

The current campaign is testing as never before the democratic nature of the Chavez regime, and so far it is flunking the test. The first example comes from within Chavez's own rank and file. A primary was organized inside the PSUV but it quickly was shown as a way to impose in certain states the candidates that Chavez wanted. We saw for example the nasty expulsion of the Carabobo state governor, Acosta Carles, worthy of Stalinist days. Of much worse consequence was the highhanded manner in which the PSUV excluded from its nomination system its minor allies of the PPT and Communist Party, creating local divisions which could deprive Chavez of his very home state of Barinas.

The opposition of course did not fare any better. Early polls showed that some opposition leaders rode easily, such as Chacao mayor Leopoldo Lopez, who was a shoo-in to become mayor at large of Caracas. Through a political administrative trick in clear violation of the constitution, Chavez had these guys barred from running. For all the explanations and propaganda blitz, Chavismo failed to prove its point as even the European Parliament condemned what was obviously a violation of human rights.

Still, in spite of these initial setbacks, the opposition has managed to unite and run single candidates in most districts. Currently the opposition is set to win in Zulia, Carabobo, and Miranda, three main states which, if we add the Caracas metropolitan district, would represent almost 40% of the population of Venezuela. This would be very worrisome for Chavez even if he were to win the rest of the country, which is far from a given, as the rise of opposition candidates keeps being fueled by things such as the corruption of the regime exposed mercilessly in a Miami trial.

Chavez, after having invented yet another assassination attempt on him, has decided to jail notable opponents. (The dozens of previously claimed assassination attempts have resulted so far in no blood spilled nor any trial or convicted figure or even a picture of the plotters in the press.)  Rosales, who ran against Chavez in 2006, is the last big name still allowed to run and thus has become his main target, accused of all sorts of conspiracies. Chavez has stopped measuring his words and before threatening Rosales with jail he called him "desgraciado" (without divine grace), which in religious Zulia is akin to biblical cursing.

Chavez is committing a major error here because if Rosales is indeed such a dangerous criminal, plotting against him to the point that Chavez must cancel his visit to El Salvador for an important Ibero-American summit, how come Chavez did not have him arrested in the eight years he has been governor? Has not Chavez controlled fully the intelligence apparatus since at least 2002, enough time one would presume to levy charges? We must thus interpret Chavez's anger as him feeling that he is losing control of the situation. He might not be wrong, but he is barking at the wrong tree: the fall of oil and inflation reaching 40% will be his undoing much faster than any opposition politician can hope to be.