There has been a wave of public sympathy for Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s fiery leader, who is battling cancer. Hundreds of thousands of supporters cheered him on at a rally last week in Caracas, when he officially launched his re-election campaign in an uncharacteristically short speech that lasted just three hours.
And yet even if he were in perfect health, Mr. Chavez, 57, and his program of 21st-century socialism have not proven to be the best course for Venezuela. During his 13 years in office, he has consolidated state control over the economy and pursued an ambitious agenda of social programs. But in spite of high oil prices, the experiment has not been successful or sustainable. Instead, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter has seen a drop in production, a rise in crime, high inflation and a shortage of food.
Disaffected Venezuelans now have a credible alternative. After years of infighting, the opposition has coalesced behind one candidate: Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 39-year-old lawyer and former governor. He is the politician best positioned to return the country to a path of moderation and pragmatism.
Too young to be identified with the corruption and graft of the traditional parties of the past, Mr. Capriles has also wisely chosen not to attack Mr. Chavez’s ideology. Instead, he has set forth his own anti-crime agenda and proposals to improve education and increase investment and job growth.
Of course, the charismatic Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper famous for his anti-U.S. rhetoric and oil diplomacy, remains hugely popular among the disenfranchised. Polls shows he commands at least 50 per cent support, with the election still four months away.
His precarious health adds a dangerous level of uncertainty. What would happen if he died before he took office? How would a successor be chosen? All power is concentrated in his hands, and there is always the possibility of violence, notes Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “There is a lot of resentment and rancour. There are militias. And then there is the military. It is a combustible mix,” he says.
It is up to Mr. Capriles to convince voters that there are alternatives to Chavismo, and that he can bring all Venezuelans greater prosperity and equality.