English | News | Prensa | 29 octubre 2012

Chávez used government media for enormous election advantage (Wall Street Journal)

Mr. Chávez launched an effective propaganda campaign telling voters that Mr. Capriles was lying and would take away the programs. Mr. Chávez’s government had some enormous advantages. The Chávez camp used government advertising, as well as programs that all television and radio stations were forced to broadcast by law, to gain a lopsided publicity edge—43 minutes a day compared with three for the Capriles campaign, according to data compiled by a local nongovernmental organization, Monitoreo Ciudadano.

Chávez violated numerous laws using public resources for his campaign

CARACAS—Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez soared to a bigger-than-expected victory over his challenger in elections Sunday, surviving the biggest test of his 14 years in power and handing him another six-year mandate to rule the oil-rich nation.

With 90% of the vote counted, official results showed Mr. Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela winning 54.4% of the votes compared with 45% for Henrique Capriles, a former state governor who ran a spirited campaign for change. Turnout was a surprising 81%, the election agency said.

Fireworks erupted over Caracas as Mr. Chávez’s supporters, clad in red shirts, took to the streets to celebrate, many shouting “Viva Chávez” and waving Venezuelan flags.

“The people here identify with the president, he is a man who touches our hearts,” said David Romero, a middle-aged social worker. Mr. Chávez has “helped the invalids and the humble ones, and the people pay him back with love.”

Mr. Capriles conceded defeat and congratulated Mr. Chávez.

“The people have spoken, and their word is sacred,” said the marathon runner, who garnered 6 million votes to 7.4 million for the president. “Peace and patience,” he urged the opposition, pointing out that he is only 40 years old. “God’s timing is perfect.”

It was the best showing for the opposition since Mr. Chávez won elections in 1998, but fell short of their expectations.

The comfortable win gives Mr. Chávez, a former army tank commander, a mandate to press ahead with his self-styled Socialist revolution. Mr. Chávez, who will have been in power for 20 years by the next election, has vowed to give more power to grass-roots community councils to carry out social programs with state money. Critics say that would undermine democratically elected mayors across the country.

Over the past years, Mr. Chávez has brought sweeping change to this South American nation of 29 million, centralizing power by stacking the courts and many other institutions with supporters and nationalizing broad parts of the economy from electricity to cement. Critics say he also divided Venezuelans with a rhetoric of class warfare.

A Chávez victory will come as a disappointment to Washington, which was hoping for an end to the Venezuelan leader’s virulent anti-American speech and his close alliances with U.S. opponents like Iran, Russia and Belarus.

The victory will be greeted with relief in Havana, Beijing and Moscow. Cuba and a number of small Caribbean countries get much of their oil at sharply reduced prices from Venezuela. China is providing the Chávez government with a $40 billion revolving fund which is paid for out of the country’s oil revenues, while Venezuela is a significant buyer of Russian arms.

Mr. Capriles had said he wouldn’t give any free oil to Cuba, wouldn’t buy any Russian weapons and would hit the reset button on commercial relations with China.

Mr. Chávez once again emerges victorious from an election—a test he has never lost. This was his narrowest victory so far, but still bigger than predicted by many pre-election polls. Some surveys accurately pointed to a 10 point victory; others showed a close race and some had Mr. Capriles ahead.

Following his victory, Mr. Chávez, clad in red, emerged on the balcony of the Miraflores Palace, surrounded by his daughters and supporters, singing the Venezuelan national anthem. “I extend these two hands and my heart” to the opposition, said Mr. Chávez, telling citizens that Venezuela deserved to live in peace.

Casting a shadow over the victory are lingering questions about Mr. Chávez’s health. He has battled cancer for much of the past two years. While he says he is cured, his government hasn’t revealed information about his condition, raising doubts among Venezuelans.

If Mr. Chávez dies within the first four years of his new term, the Venezuelan constitution calls for new elections—possibly giving Mr. Capriles another shot.

“[Mr. Capriles] would become the president in waiting,” said Riordan Roett, the head of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “Chávez can’t last much longer, given his health.”

Mr. Chávez has made social spending programs his signature policy, using high oil prices to spend billions on programs ranging from free health care in the slums to a housing program that guarantees virtually free apartments to the poor.

Mr. Chávez’s spending, outsize personality, and gift of gab—he often talks for hours on end on television and radio while telling jokes and singing songs—has allowed him to forge a direct, emotional link to residents of the slums that cling to hillsides around Caracas and other cities.

Even critics give Mr. Chávez credit for having placed poverty at the center of the political dialogue, and empowering poor people who had long felt neglected by the government.

Pedro Hernandez, a 29-year-old gardener, said he has several relatives who have benefited from free apartments that the government has rushed to build in the past two years. He voted for the president. “You can’t just stop the revolution now.”

Just last year, state oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela SA spent some $30 billion on social programs—spending that paid electoral dividends on Sunday.

Mr. Chávez will have his hands full with an economy that is showing growing strains from years of unorthodox policies. Inflation at about 21% is among the highest at the world, and price controls have led to shortages of basics like milk. The wave of nationalizations has hollowed out the private sector, leading to growing imports.

The populist’s government also has a large and growing fiscal deficit, leading most economists to expect Mr. Chávez is going to carry out a major currency devaluation in coming months.

Crime is another trouble spot. Crime has grown quickly—from about 19 murders per 100,000 residents per year in 1998 to 45 in 2010—one of the world’s highest murder rates, according to United Nations statistics.

Mr. Capriles is likely to remain a formidable foe. He began the campaign a distant second but closed the gap with the president by arguing that the country’s oil money had been badly spent—a criticism that struck a chord. By the end of the campaign, Mr. Chávez promised to “be a better president.”

During the past decade, Venezuela has earned an estimated $1 trillion in oil revenue. But unlike the transformations that have taken place in other energy or commodity-rich nations, critics say Venezuela has been largely unchanged by the bonanza. Only in the last year has the Caracas skyline started to change with new apartment towers for the poor built by the government.

During the campaign, Mr. Capriles tried to make inroads into the president’s base of support among the poor, promising to keep the president’s popular social spending programs.

But Mr. Chávez launched an effective propaganda campaign telling voters that Mr. Capriles was lying and would take away the programs. Voters like Jose Gregorio Blanco, 54, an assistant at a local community council, said he was convinced Mr. Capriles would scrap the programs.

Mr. Chávez’s government also had some enormous advantages. The Chávez camp used government advertising, as well as programs that all television and radio stations were forced to broadcast by law, to gain a lopsided publicity edge—43 minutes a day compared with three for the Capriles campaign, according to data compiled by a local nongovernmental organization, Monitoreo Ciudadano.

The Capriles camp also complained that many of the country’s 2.5 million government workers were told that they risked losing their jobs if they didn’t vote for the president. The Chávez government has denied such tactics.

Some Venezuelans said another Chávez victory would drive them from the country—joining a growing group of Venezuelans who have left in recent years. Armando García, 25, and his father Armando Jose García, said that if Mr. Chávez won again, they planned to emigrate to join relatives in Boca Raton, Florida.

“One of the biggest problems is security,” said the younger Mr. García, who is studying to be a dentist. “Every year the country has gotten worse. We don’t want to leave our lives here, our family, our house. But if he wins, we’ll have to.”

As the results show, however, many of Mr. Chávez’s supporters don’t blame him for the country’s biggest problems. High inflation is blamed on rapacious companies trying to make a profit, and crime is often blamed on local officials like mayors or governors.

David Villamizar, a 46-year-old lawyer, admitted there is problem with violence in Caracas, but said that big cities everywhere suffer from such issues. “I was in Paris last month and I saw someone get mugged on the metro,” he said.

Original article at Wall Street Journal by David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba with contributions from Ezequiel Minaya, Kejal Vyas and Sara Schaefer Muñoz