Hugo Chávez’s Re-election Bid: Is the Latin American Left Stumbling?

Venezuela's firebrand socialist president is no longer a shoo-in to win re-election on Oct. 7—for reasons that are also haunting other leaders on the Latin American left.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tomas Bravo / Reuters

A sticker of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles is seen over a poster of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in downtown Caracas Oct. 2, 2012.

As I write in the international edition of TIME, and as Girish Gupta wrote last week on, Venezuela’s burgeoning violent crime will be a key factor in the Oct. 7 presidential election. The baffling inability of socialist President Hugo Chávez, who controls the world’s largest oil reserves, to rein in a murder rate that by some estimates is four times higher than when he took office 13 years ago, including some 50 homicides a week in Caracas, has rankled Venezuelan voters. Chávez wasn’t helped last Sunday when two supporters of his centrist challenger, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, were shot and killed in Chávez’s home state of Barinas, allegedly by Chávez backers who were blocking a Capriles campaign caravan.

A third victim, also a Capriles supporter, is in critical condition. Chávez urged Venezuelans to “confront each other with votes, not violence,” but he just as quickly took the polarizing low road and blamed his “bourgeois” opponents for the deadly confrontation. The Capriles camp was angered again on Wednesday when a judge in Barinas, where Chávez’s elder brother Adán is Governor, inexplicably released two of the shooting suspects.

Chávez, who is battling cancer, is certainly favored to win re-election this Sunday. But the Barinas episode is a reminder of why he’s no longer considered an overwhelming shoo-in – and why a Capriles victory is no longer unthinkable. More and more, Chávez’s left-wing revolution is marked by the kind of dogmatic denial and bullying bluster that has left Venezuelans like Luz Marina Morón, a nurse I recently interviewed in the poor Caracas barrio of Catia—a cradle of el presidente’s political support—feeling “harta,” as she told me, or fed up. Doctors at the hospital in Catia say 80% of trauma cases are gunshot wounds; Morón’s son was gunned down a few years ago in Catia by a street tough who wanted his tennis shoes. To her, the homicide plague spotlights the paradox of Chávez’s long rule: How his welcome anti-poverty mission has been undermined by his mismanaged socialist mission—how crises like crime, inflation and corruption have become as much a part of the revolution’s landscape as new health clinics and defiance of the U.S.

(MORE: Challenging Hugo Chávez: Can His Old Foe Capriles Unseat Him?)

But whether Chávez wins or loses, his revolution’s decline is a reflection of a larger malaise among the Latin American left after a decade of robust resurgence. Chávez’s two Achilles heels going into Sunday’s vote are crime and inflation, which at 28% last year was the world’s highest. In Argentina, meanwhile, demonstrators have been taking to the streets en masse in recent weeks, banging pots and pans, to protest leftist President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—and their two biggest complaints are crime and inflation. Argentina, according to the Organization of American States, has the highest armed robbery rate in the western hemisphere; and inflation, pegged at close to 25% by independent analysts, has prompted Fernández to impose tight currency controls that have all but barred Argentines from buying dollars.

Like Chávez, Fernández has amassed a surfeit of authoritarian power that often blinds her to flaws in her populist crusade. But with economic growth projected to be negligible this year, government deficits ballooning and her Vice President embroiled in a major corruption scandal, Fernández’s approval rating has free-fallen from 64% last autumn, when she won re-election by a landslide and economic growth was running at 8.9%, to 24% now, according to the Argentine polling firm Management & Fit. Moody’s Investment Service downgraded Argentina’s risk rating last month, while Fernández railed at the International Monetary Fund for demanding more reliable economic data from her government. The Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, sets inflation at a highly questionable 10% or less—and actually fines anyone who publishes contrarian figures.

The IMF is certainly no saintly institution; critics say its fiscal rigidity helped bring on the epic financial collapse Argentina suffered a decade ago, which Fernández and her late husband and presidential predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, are credited for fixing. But Fernández didn’t find much global sympathy last month when IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned that she would issue no more “yellow cards,” as she said in soccer-ese, and that Argentina must produce accurate data by Dec. 17 or face the unprecedented red card of IMF censure if not expulsion.

Fernández rejected Lagarde’s notice as an affront to Argentina’s sovereignty. But many Argentines seem weary of her Cristina-against-the-world act, which hit a crescendo this year when she peremptorily expropriated Spanish petro-giant Repsol’s $10 billion controlling stake in Argentina’s largest oil company, YPF. As a result, they seem far less enthusiastic about her not-so-veiled bid to change the Constitution so she can run for a third four-year term in 2015.

(MORE: All Hail the Queen: Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner)

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa is also favored to win re-election on Feb. 17. But he may not have the resounding support of el pueblo that he assumed. Between corruption allegations—there is growing clamor inside Ecuador’s Congress to investigate hundreds of millions of dollars in questionable no-bid government contracts handed out by Correa’s government, including big ones to his brother—and Correa’s own authoritarian bent, most evidenced by his crackdown on media and free speech, Correa (who also granted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum this year) may face strong enough opposition to force a second-round runoff. One of his main challengers, centrist congressional deputy César Montúfar, just had his candidacy suddenly disqualified by Ecuador’s Correa-friendly election council for lack of petition signatures, even though his bid was already certified in July.

Oil wealth-generated corruption—a pestilence that Chávez came to power decrying—is a key issue for Venezuelan voters, too. But as with crime and inflation, Chávez barely mentions it, insisting only that he’ll double down on his socialist agenda if he wins another six-year term, even though foreign investment has all but dried up. His officials, in fact, outright dismiss the problems. Chávez’s Information Minister, Andrés Izarra, once began laughing uncontrollably on CNN en Español in an attempt to mock another guest who argued that Chávez’s failure to reduce the spiraling murder rate hurt the poor, who are by far the majority of victims.

Izarra’s unseemly mirth—and the Chávez government’s refusal to release violent crime data in recent years, apparently believing the problem will go away if it’s not acknowledged—are symptoms of a larger arrogancia that seems to be catching up with the Latin American left. Whatever Sunday’s outcome, Chávez’s movement isn’t laughing so loudly anymore.

MORE: Will Venezuela’s Pandemic of Crime Destabilize Chávez’s Regime?