April 11 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Venezuelan protest that lead to a coup which removed Chavez from power for 47 hours. This event remains an issue of great debate in Venezuela, with Chavez supporters, colloquially known as Chavistas, and the opposition blaming each other for the violence and deaths that occurred that day.
Presidential elections will be held this year on October 7, and many opposition members and former Chavistas are hopeful of see him hand over power to someone else. The opposition has united under the Coalition for Democratic Unity and has placed their support behind Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young, charismatic, and successful politician. Chavez is now 57 years-old, and has been undergoing surgery and radiation therapy to treat his cancer. This upcoming election campaign may very well be his last.
The last 13 years of Hugo Chavez’s presidency have been tumultuous. His socialist Bolivarian Revolution has led to the nationalization of a wide array of industries within the country, the establishment of a welfare state, an increase in military spending, an increase in violence, and a decline in civil liberties. Venezuela’s poorest have benefited from many of the Revolution’s reforms, as extreme poverty has continually declined over the last decade. Venezuela is electric with talk about the upcoming elections. Cable television covered the Coalition’s primaries closely, and as October 7 looms closer, media outlets, whether state-owned or private, are continuing their coverage of what is expected by many to be a very close race.
The opposition is concerned about how fair the election will be, and their apprehensions are not based on just their imagination. In 2003 and 2004, a recall referendum asking for Chavez to step down collected around 2,400,000 signatures that were later made public and used to attack those who had decided to oppose the president through a democratic medium. Known as the ‘Tascon List,’ those who signed were fired from government jobs and denied employment opportunities as well as access to public services. In other election years, the National Electoral Council has made it difficult for opposition voters to vote through a variety of methods, including allowing long lines to accumulate in pro-opposition neighborhoods. Voter registration outside of the country, were many of those who oppose Chavez now live or work, has become extremely difficult as of late as well, especially with the closing of the Venezuelan Consulate office in Miami earlier this year. Chavez closed the Consulate office after Livia Noguera, the consul general in Miami, was declared a persona non grata and was told to leave the U.S. following accusations of being involved in planning cyber attacks on the U.S.
The upcoming election will be a test for President Hugo Chavez not only politically, but also physically. Health specialists have speculated that Chavez’s health may impair his ability to run a successful reelection campaign, and have gone even further than that to say that he may not have much time to live. His regime has arrested political prisoners, and has been accused of being involved with the increase in drug trafficking that has infiltrated the country. Graffiti on walls across the country read “To the Hague,” echoing the sentiments of many that Chavez is a criminal who deserves to be tried in the International Criminal Court.
A self-declared champion of the people, these elections will be a trial as to whether his authoritarian regime still garners the support of the proletariat as they once did, and the Venezuelan people can only hope they will be fair and have the election results respected by the winning party.