In Venezuela, everything’s in play

On 7 October 1571, the naval forces of the Catholic countries of southern Europe fought the Ottoman Empire fleet in what is known as the "Battle of Lepanto." Against heavy odds, the Catholic forces defeated the Ottomans, denying them exclusive rights over the Mediterranean. Historians consider this a turning point in the Ottoman campaign to ...

RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages
RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages
RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages

On 7 October 1571, the naval forces of the Catholic countries of southern Europe fought the Ottoman Empire fleet in what is known as the "Battle of Lepanto." Against heavy odds, the Catholic forces defeated the Ottomans, denying them exclusive rights over the Mediterranean. Historians consider this a turning point in the Ottoman campaign to control the Mediterranean.

441 years to the day, opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez hope to score a victory that, to many at least, seems of similar importance. This Sunday's presidential election between Chávez and challenger Henrique Capriles is crucial for the country, as any victory is bound to have lasting consequences.

If Chávez were to triumph in the polls, Venezuelans would embark on a path that would lead to further encroachment on the private sector and increased similarities to Communist Cuba. Chávez has already warned he will increase the presence of the military and of Communal Councils in the lives of Venezuelans. He is sure to interpret a triumph in the polls as an endorsement of his policies of expropriation and socialist experimentation. Freedom of the press and movement will probably be eroded.

On 7 October 1571, the naval forces of the Catholic countries of southern Europe fought the Ottoman Empire fleet in what is known as the "Battle of Lepanto." Against heavy odds, the Catholic forces defeated the Ottomans, denying them exclusive rights over the Mediterranean. Historians consider this a turning point in the Ottoman campaign to control the Mediterranean.

441 years to the day, opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez hope to score a victory that, to many at least, seems of similar importance. This Sunday’s presidential election between Chávez and challenger Henrique Capriles is crucial for the country, as any victory is bound to have lasting consequences.

If Chávez were to triumph in the polls, Venezuelans would embark on a path that would lead to further encroachment on the private sector and increased similarities to Communist Cuba. Chávez has already warned he will increase the presence of the military and of Communal Councils in the lives of Venezuelans. He is sure to interpret a triumph in the polls as an endorsement of his policies of expropriation and socialist experimentation. Freedom of the press and movement will probably be eroded.

On the contrary, a Capriles win may pave the way for great instability. Capriles promises a return to somewhat normal, left-of-center policies. However, all of the country’s institutions are controlled by chavistas, and it is hard to see them working alongside an opposition president.

For Capriles to win, he needs heavy turnout from younger voters, particularly young women. He also needs lower turnout from disenchanted chavistas — mostly poor, rural Venezuelans older than forty. Capriles needs to perform well in medium-sized cities such as Valera, Coro, and Cumaná. Key battleground states for him will be Aragua (a populous, industrial state in the central coast region), Anzoátegui, Monagas (both large states in the East, both with significant oil reserves), and especially Lara (another populous central state), formerly a bastion of the president, but one whose popular, formerly chavista governor is now an enthusiastic Capriles supporter.

For Chávez to win, he needs his political machinery to work perfectly. Key to his victory will be turnout in the Llanos, a chavista bastion, as well as keeping the vote in Caracas close.

Most importantly, he also needs public employees and people receiving social benefits to be afraid to vote for the opposition. He needs them to believe that a change in government will jeopardize their gains, and that he — contrary to his record so far — will solve pressing problems such as crime, lack of housing, a creaking electricity grid, and a scarcity of good jobs.

Fear is what is behind Chávez’s threats of a civil war were he to lose. He wants to make the act of voting for the opposition a subversive one, something appalling and treasonous. He hopes that by making a vote for Capriles a huge deal, people will be dissuaded from doing so. After all, nobody wants a civil war on their conscience.

What will happen?

Two of the three most respectable pollsters in Venezuela put the race in a dead heat, and one of those puts Capriles ahead. More importantly, all polls show support for Capriles to be growing. The momentum is clearly with the challenger.

The polls suggest a tight result. It is highly unlikely that any candidate will win by more than five percentage points, and this benefits Capriles. As a Capriles campaign operative put it to me: "They are tied. And I’d much rather be in our position, tied and growing, than in Chavez’s position, tied and shrinking."

As in the Battle of Lepanto so many years ago, Venezuelans who support the opposition hope to emerge victorious and unscathed from this Sunday’s battle. But — having accomplished so much this far — even if they were to lose by a little, they must build on their successes and move forward.

After all, a young Spaniard fought in the Battle of Lepanto and lost the use of his left arm. That didn’t stop him from future glory. His name? Miguel de Cervantes.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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