Mon, Oct 08, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Will election be Chavez’s last stand?

Amid rumors of failing health and with the country’s infrastructure crumbling, Hugo Chavez faced an election yesterday that was set to decide the fate of the Venezuelan revolution

By Rory Carroll  /  The Guardian

Guerrero’s effort to hand out leaflets garnered little attention from passers-by, however, and she feared friends and neighbors would abandon Chavez. Polls show Petare voting for the opposition.

“I’m worried. I keep telling them that the president doesn’t like rubbish in the streets, or potholes, or insecurity, that he wants us to tackle them together,” Guerrero says.

Guerrero was referring to the single most damning critique of the revolution, one that has nothing to do with Chavez’s democratic credentials. Venezuela is falling apart. In the case of infrastructure, literally. Roads are crumbling, bridges falling, refineries exploding. A wheezing power grid condemns much of the country to rolling blackouts. Public hospitals, with a few exceptions, are dank, dingy affairs where patients must supply their own bedsheets, bandages and food.

Prisons are filthy and riven by violence which claimed 500 lives last year. To massage statistics there was a tacit deal between authorities and some gang leaders to hang victims so they could be counted as suicide, a mid-ranking penal official told me. She had armfuls of documentation and grisly photographs.

“But how can I use it? If I do, I’ll be fired, lose my pension and then be prosecuted,” she says.

Murder rates have more than doubled, filling morgues and making Caracas deadlier than Baghdad, reflecting an underfunded, politicized judicial system. Kidnappers, sometimes in league with police, snatch victims from cars, shopping malls, university campuses and bus stops. A recent security plan did not reassure — by some counts it was Chavez’s 20th such initiative. Lack of security is one reason so many young Venezuelans are emigrating, giving Caracas the melancholy nickname City of Farewells.

The economy is not falling apart. It is growing about 5 percent this year, with unemployment of around 8 percent. It is, however, warping. Under Chavez Venezuela, which claims bigger oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, has seen prices leap from US$9 a barrel to more than US$100, gushing about US$980 billion through PDVSA.

An historic bonanza begging a big question: where is the cash? Social programs and subsidies — you can fill a car’s gasoline tank for around US$0.50 — account for some, as do arms purchases and (mostly stalled) infrastructure projects. But much vanished. Chavez is no Mobutu. He did not build palaces in the jungle to store pink champagne. He did, however, create a tangle of economic controls which let opportunists in government, and those with friends in government, siphon off billions of public money.

Few outsiders grasp how profoundly restrictions such as Cadivi — a currency control agency that tried to shore up the ever weakening Venezuelan bolivar — perverted the economy and spawned a class of high-rolling parasites nicknamed “boligarchs.” Chavez occasionally complained about them, but let them get rich as long as they supported the government.

Their revolution has been one of dodgy bond issues, government contracts and currency manipulation, yielding yachts, Rolexes and Hummers. They pay fashion designers such as Giovanni Scutaro, who used to dress Chavez, astonishing sums for outfits.

“When people from the United States and Europe come here and see our weddings, they go: ‘Wow, so much money.’ There is no equilibrium between perceptions from afar and the reality of what is happening inside the country,” Scutaro says.

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