May 18, 2013
Why is he unbeatable?
The National Electoral Council (CNE) delivered its final verdict — 8,062,056 votes for Hugo Chávez or 55.15 percent of the total. After 14 years in power, what spell does Chávez weave to have over half of Venezuela behind him? Is it just his petro-dollars? Or is it the dominant PSUV party’s power to co-opt everything within a mammoth state? What makes the Chávez vote so ironclad that the opposition cannot penetrate?
“Chávez looked after me; I owe my mobility to my Comandante”, Gabriel Sánchez, a 29-year-old risk analyst told the Herald while being drenched by the torrential rain at last Thursday’s closing Chávez rally in downtown Caracas.
Sánchez was not just referring to his wheel-chair when he used the word “mobility.” He studied at one of the 22 universities inaugurated during the Chávez era, while having his paralysis treated (as he still does) at one of the CDI Integral Diagnosis Centres — he thus feels a part of the Chávez project. Bolivarian, revolutionary or “anti-majunche”, these terms do not matter much — what does matter for Sánchez, as for millions of others, is that “his” comandante cares about him.
Gabriel Sánchez lives in Caucagüita, a lower-class neighbourhood in the East End of Caracas in Miranda (the state governed by election runner-up Henrique Capriles). Caucagüita forms part of Petare, the biggest low-income (classes D and E) neighbourhood in Latin America and surely one of the most closely watched by political strategists and sociologists, given that its brick houses and apartment blocks shelter some 1.6 million souls. As from 2003, Chávez’s “missions” (or social plans) were installed there and other parts of the country, run by the relevant ministries but controlled at “popular level” by the neighbourhood councils. Power to the people — another way of spreading a feeling of inclusion to Venezuelans who, until the lieutenant-colonel reached the presidency, had never felt “part” of anything.
Among them, the Robinson and Ribas Missions for education, the Mercal Mission for cut-price markets for basic goods, the Barrio Adentro programme with its health modules sought to cure the problems which Chávez had promised to solve as a candidate ever since his first electoral campaign in 1998. In 2003 he began to deliver on those promises, subsequently triumphing in the recall referendum against him in 2004 (with 59 percent of the vote) and in the presidential in 2006 (with 62 percent).
Those missions, however were not the panacea, leaking on all sides up to the present. Of the 6,712 Barrio Adentro modules created (845 in Caracas alone), more than half are believed to have closed their doors. Their staff, mostly Cuban doctors (35,000 have reportedly been contracted in these last nine years), were in large part transferred to the 550 CDIs Integral Diagnostic Centres, small clinics giving emergency care and first aid, as well as basic intensive therapy, sometimes equipped with such specialized equipment as ultrasound, cat scans and videoendoscopy.
The CDIs are thus one stage beyond a basic health plan. Their equipment and standards of attention and hygiene seem aimed at a middle-class public, as well as the low-income neighbourhoods. (Las Mercedes, where the Argentine Embassy is situated, is covered by the Salvador Allende CDI, one of the biggest and frequently treating locals who are not exactly lower-class).
“I’m 23, a supervisor in a telephone company, a card-carrying jPSUV member studying at the Universidad Nueva Profesión (New Profession) and I’m treated here for asthma”, Israel Rodríguez told this correspondent. We’re in the spotless waiting-room of the Amelia Blanco CDI in the downtown middle-class Santa Rosa neighbourhood.
“Look”, he says, “Chávez gave me everything — education, health care and a job”, he sums up. His vote on Sunday? Don’t bother asking
“We’ve earmarked 300 billion dollars in these 14 years for social plans and relief”, announced Chávez at the height of the election campaign. That immense sum includes the subsidized basic foods on sale in the Mercal Mission store and its clone and successor PDVAL, cut-prices markets run by that sugar daddy PDVSA — that is, on the days it opens (not always) since sales have been rationed.
“You have your work cut out finding the stuff but now we can also go to a Bicentenario”, Margarita Ponte tells the Herald, in reference to the former Éxito supermarket chain (formerly belonging to France’s Casino), expropriated by Chávez two years ago.
Margarita was one of the victims of the 2010 mudslides before moving three months ago into one of the flats of the Proyecto Integral Santa Rosa built by the Great Venezuelan Housing Mission (GMVV) on Avenida Libertador in downtown Caracas. The GMVV was launched only last year with an eye to last Sunday’s elections. In a country with a housing deficit of 2.2 million housing units, Chávez promised to build 350.000 in two years. By election day, he was less than halfway there — which did not prevent him from promising during the campaign that the GMVV would also construct middle-class housing.
“I’m 64 and Chávez understands us,” says Margarita who earns 700 bolivars a month (half the basic) “which at times never arrives” in Simoncito Mission kindergarten. With so many such holes and flaws in the so-called revolution, how can Chávez keep his electoral floor intact?
“It’s the first time that anybody has made the poor feel that Miraflores looks after them”, Jesús Seguias, a data analyst at Venezuela’s DatinCorp, tells the Herald.
“Chávez has what no opposition politician can hope to combine — charisma, leadership, the common touch, contact with the people and giving them a sense of empowerment, participating in their own destiny.” All that, as far as the heart goes.
“From the practical viewpoint, Chávez has delegated to the PSUV and local activists control of the mission policy and the distribution of their funds — and there lies his strength against other political forces,” he adds.
“The whole PSUV works for the neighbourhoods where the opposition still cannot find a footing.” Throw in the petrodollars too but above all, says Seguias, “the people will never blame Chávez”. The president has skilfully known how to use his speeches and ¡Alo Presidente! television programmes to duck blame and transfer it to his ministers and aides. That’s why, he concludes, after 14 years in power, the spell remains the same.