By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 1, 2006
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 30 -- This country's populist president, Hugo Chávez, beloved by his followers, has achieved a cultlike status by mixing his considerable charisma with a free-spending policy of funneling billions into social programs. But that hasn't stopped his oil-rich government from using every tool at its disposal to ensure that voters flock to its side in Sunday's presidential election.
Ramon Antonio Perez, 41, found that out the hard way. Never shy about expressing his dislike for the government, Perez said he was fired from his job in the publicly run Caracas subway system after ignoring repeated warnings about his political activities. "From night to day," he said, "I've been left with nothing."
At the state oil company, a young lawyer -- also opposed to the government -- described how the red T-shirts government supporters wear are handed out in bulk to workers, who are then expected to don them for pro-Chávez rallies.
"When everyone is in red and going to rallies and you don't go along, then you begin to worry," said the lawyer, who asked that she not be identified for fear of being fired.
A secretly taped video disseminated by the opposition in early November shows Rafael Ramírez, the president of the company, telling workers in a packed auditorium that there could not be "the tiniest doubt that the new Pdvsa is with Chávez," using the abbreviation for Petróleos de Venezuela. Ramírez also says a manager was fired for permitting a plane carrying Chávez's main opponent in the election, Manuel Rosales, to land on a company-operated airstrip.
"What's that about?" Ramírez says in the video. "Is it that people are getting crazy? Is it true then that we have infiltration from the squalid ones here, the enemies of the revolution?"
Chávez is poised to easily win a second six-year term in which his government will seek to solidify its control over the private sector and accelerate its redistribution of wealth to the country's poor. Aside from two pollsters closely tied to the opposition, a dozen polls -- including some by anti-Chávez analysts -- show Chávez winning by a wide margin.
Government officials say the polls underscore the wellspring of support that comes from the poor barrios where Chávez has drawn much of his strength since his emergence as a restless army colonel whose first attempt at taking power, in a 1992 coup, failed. Since then, he has won a string of elections: the 1998 landslide that put him in office; referendums that led to a new constitution and a new National Assembly; and a 2004 vote that dealt a stunning blow to an opposition effort to recall him.
"This is not a dictatorship," Chávez told reporters Thursday. "This is a democracy."
Few outside of the most radical opposition leaders argue that Chávez's magnetic persona and the state's focus on social programs haven't helped propel him from one victory to the next. But political analysts here and in the United States say the Venezuelan government has also grown in influence and power through a system that mixes the trappings of democracy with old-fashioned patronage, a touch of intimidation and the theatrical warnings Chávez frequently makes about the United States, pronouncements that keep his supporters in a state of agitation.
And though Venezuela's press remains one of Latin America's feistiest, and its anti-government leaders rail against Chávez, limits have been imposed. A 2004 law aimed at broadcast media has prompted self-censorship, journalists here say. Another law makes it illegal for anyone to show disrespect for public officials. Some opposition leaders, notably in the stridently anti-Chávez group Sumate, have been threatened with jail.
With few checks and balances, the president has overwhelming control of every state institution and makes virtually all key decisions. The 167-member National Assembly, which has not had an opposition politician in its ranks since the president's foes boycotted last year's elections, and the courts are little more than adornments. The military is represented in ministries and departments across the government, from city halls to the apparatus that runs elections.
Perhaps most important, billions of dollars flow directly from Petróleos de Venezuela to the executive branch.
"All presidents try to maximize their power," said Javier Corrales, an Amherst College political science professor who writes about Latin America. "They don't succeed as much. This is what happens when you have strong institutions. But in Venezuela, Chávez has succeeded."
The opposition's tactics have strengthened the president's hand, giving him a seemingly endless supply of verbal ammunition to hurl at his foes. A 2002 coup, which the White House tacitly supported, and a national strike months later, which nearly shuttered Petróleos de Venezuela, infuriated poor Venezuelans.
The leaders of the opposition, drawn mainly from Venezuela's upper classes, have also failed to comprehend Chávez's appeal among the poor.
Rosales, Chávez's electoral opponent, has fashioned an alternative message, talking about crime and promising populist giveaways. But he has recently stepped up the timeworn accusations that Chávez is taking Venezuela on the road to "Castro Communism."
"He wants to take Venezuela to a system that has a democratic facade," Rosales said in an interview. "But it's one that uses the model of Cuba, with an eternal presidency, with one party, where there is no private property, where there is no liberty of expression."
In a country where insults are traded freely and capitalist consumer culture reigns as perhaps nowhere else in Latin America, such comments have failed to reverberate with the masses.
Chávez seems to relish the attacks.
"Here they talk of Castro Communism," he said at a news conference. "It's like they're frozen in the 1960s."
At the Carmen Maiso de Bello School, where students ages 10 to 80 learn how to read and handle simple math problems, Chávez means progress. Teacher Elizabeth Rodriguez, 21, owes her job to the government, which is also putting her through college.
"The people are very happy with what President Chávez is doing," she said. "He's the one who's taking us out of the darkness."
Chávez's most committed backers, poor people who felt forgotten until his arrival, do not raise an eyebrow when the president remarks that his presidency may last another generation.
"How long will Chávez rule? Until 2000-forever, because we're all with him," said Maria Nava, 56. "He's the only leader of everyone. We love him to death."
Political analysts say that kind of fervent support may be heartfelt, but it is also part of a carefully cultivated strategy by the government. Chávez has demonized his opponents, radicalizing his more numerous supporters and instilling in them a deep-seated fear that if he is voted out, they will lose all that they have gained. The government here says that if Chávez loses, the winners would be oligarchs and opportunists allied with the Bush administration, which is highly unpopular in Latin America.
"Let's not forget that we are facing the very devil," the president told hundreds of thousands of supporters at a rally Sunday. "On December 3, we face at the ballot box the imperialist government of the United States of America."
To ensure what Chávez promises will be a "crushing" victory that will turn his opponents into "dust," the government appears to be employing its considerable influence to marshal votes. State resources are used freely in campaigns, and for workers in Venezuela's burgeoning bureaucracy, it is perfectly clear where their sympathies should lie.
"They get a kit, and the kit is a red cap and a red T-shirt," said Froilan Barrios, a leader in the country's main labor confederation.
With more than 2 million workers, the public bureaucracy is important to both candidates. Electoral observers said the pressure has ranged from soft -- an early Christmas bonus -- to hard, with workers at the tax collection agency allegedly pressured to sell bonds to help fund the Chávez campaign.
"There has been an excessive use of state resources to favor the president," said Pedro Nikken, one of five directors of Electoral Eye, a watchdog group that has otherwise found an audit of voting machines adequate.
Gabriela Ramírez, a congresswoman closely allied with Chávez, defended the government's efforts to ensure that workers at state entities, especially the oil company, are "red, very red." She recalled how employees at Petróleos de Venezuela had revolted against the government in a failed bid to bring down Chávez.
"When we talk of being red, very red, we're talking of being committed to the revolution," she said. "We're talking about a government for the majority."
Those who have been found to support the opposition have learned the hard way that they're not wanted.
Lawyer Rocio San Miguel, 40, lost her job in 2004 after she signed a petition that led to the presidential recall vote Chávez later won. Her name had been among 3.4 million signatures leaked to a pro-government congressman who later posted them on his Web site.
San Miguel said she knows what state workers who oppose the government are going through. "It is a climate of fear," she said, "and fear works, especially when it's related to your work."