How Solid Is Support for Chávez?
Now that the referendum is over, observers have moved on to question the depth of Chávez's support – and the long-term future of Venezuela if Chávez continues in office. "The country is divided, and there are two visions of Venezuelan society," says Francisco Rojas, professor of economic development at the Rafael Belloso Chacín University in Venezuela. "On one side, there are those who want to move toward liberal democracy. On the other side, others have a vision of society that is socialistic" and similar to Cuba's.
Rojas argues that Chávez's "participatory" approach is much closer to socialism than to Western democracy but that Venezuela has a democratic tradition and is resisting Chávez's attempts to move toward socialism. "A lot of people don't understand that a large number of Venezuelans were trained and educated in a democracy and have the values of Western democracy. You cannot suddenly impose on them the notion that democracy doesn't work."
Chávez's core support comes from unionized workers in the oil industry, which is largely state-owned, Guillén says. This sector also includes many private companies that are subcontractors to the state. "They love Chávez because they know he won't cut their wages and that when there is inflation, he will raise them." Beyond that core group of supporters, some consumers may be happy with Chávez because he subsidizes prices for basic utilities, such as water and electricity, as well as for bread, flour and milk.
However, Guillén argues that it is simplistic to say that Chávez is universally supported by Venezuela's working class, especially working families that don't have stable jobs. Sectors such as metal-working and agriculture suffer whenever the government's ambitious programs stimulate inflation. Moreover, Venezuela's more dynamic export-oriented businesses are clearly lined up against Chávez, he says.
Despite the seal of approval on the vote provided by Jimmy Carter and others, Guillén doubts that the referendum was a genuine victory for Chávez, noting that allegations of a rigged election "are probably true. A lot of journalistic reports indicate that fraud was very widespread, although it will be hard to prove." Rojas shares Guillén's skepticism. "There are no principles of common sense that can explain how the government got so many votes. Not even the government's own supporters have accepted" the outcome.
How then did the government manage to win the referendum? Rojas suggests that the administration sent its supporters to various locations where it allowed access only to those who had ties with the government. "In Venezuela, we changed our president every five years because we realized that things weren't going well. In this case, there is a general view that the president has not done a good job, and even the previous election polls showed that the government was in a tough spot." Although there is not enough proof to invalidate the referendum, Rojas says that the official result is "practically impossible to explain."
What does the future hold for Venezuela? Rojas is highly critical of the Chávez government's economic strategy. "The Venezuelan economy is extremely dependent on oil. It should have diversified a long time ago. Instead, what the current government has done is depend on oil even more than ever before. In the past, when oil prices were high, the country enjoyed a bonanza, but nowadays unemployment is around 17 percent. It's alarming to see how apprehensive Venezuelans are."
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