When it comes to hypocrisy, few world leaders can outdo Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's self-styled Comandante. A few days after President Obama was elected to a second term in office, Chavez offered these words of advice to his American counterpart: "He should reflect first on his own nation, which has a lot of economic and social problems. It's a divided, socially fractured country with a super-elite exploiting the people."
Actually, that advice would make much more sense had it come to Chavez from Obama. Because if we are looking for a country in the American hemisphere that has been ripped apart by the promotion of hate and violence, and is dominated by a corrupt military-civilian clique, then we should turn our gaze not to the United States, but to Venezuela.
Chavez's cockiness is rooted in his victory in the Venezuelan election two months ago. He won that election with 54 percent of the vote, against 44 percent for his energetic young challenger, Henrique Capriles. Now, in a normal democracy, any leader who won an election with a ten point margin would be justifiably proud of that achievement. But Venezuela is not a democracy.
Were we a democracy, Chavez would not have been eligible to stand in the first place. In power since 1999, he will formally begin his fourth term as president in January 2013 -- only because, in 2009, he abolished the presidential term limits that are a fundamental characteristic of any healthy democracy.
Additionally, in democracies, candidates for public office are given an equal amount of air time. In Venezuela, however, freedom of speech and of the media is subject to the whims of Chavez and his cronies; private media outlets are fined, suspended and even closed down, while the government pushes it propaganda through its control of 70 percent of our mdia outlets. Effectively blocked from broadcasting his message, Capriles had no choice other than to embark on an extraordinary road trip across the country, meeting voters in person in big cities and small villages alike.
It does not, therefore, require the most imaginative mind to understand that had Chavez been obliged to fight a fair election, he would have been trounced. Only by fixing the circumstances of the vote well in advance -- including by going so far as to bribe public officials into casting their ballots for him -- was he able to emerge as the winner. Chavez has maintained power by effectively committing slow motion fraud against the voters.
Chavez's victory means that Venezuela faces several more years of social disintegration. To begin with, the regime is groaning under the weight of unprecedented debt. Venezuela owes over $200 billion to foreign lenders, while its domestic indebtedness has risen by 64 percent in less than a year to $58.7 billion. This debt has been accumulated over a period when oil prices have never been higher. In 1998, when Chavez won his first presidential election, Venezuela owed a comparatively modest $36 billion.
On top of our enormous economic problems, we face a grave crisis in crime (Venezuela has one of the world's highest rates of homicide) and education (as noted by education expert Rubén Darío Peralta, 90 percent of students who took the most recent academic aptitude test, or Prueba de Aptitud Académica, failed it.) Yet there is some hope to be gleaned in the realization that the Venezuela of now is not the Venezuela of five years ago.
For one thing, there is Chavez's health. Throughout the election, he was dogged by reports that he was suffering from terminal cancer, from which he now claims to have been cured, without providing any evidence in support. Should Chavez depart from the scene, his regime will be plunged into an internecine battle, since there is no obvious successor.
Added to that, we now have an effective opposition. Capriles is heading the effort to deliver a blow to Chavez at the state elections on December 16. In the state of Miranda, where Capriles served as an effective and popular governor before accepting the opposition's nomination to run for the presidency, he is expected to defeat Chavez's own candidate, Elias Jaua, the sly former vice-president.
The true picture of Venezuela today is the polar opposite of Chavez's fantasies. His regime has never looked so vulnerable and the opposition has never looked so strong. As we ready ourselves for the next set of challenges -- most obviously an imminent and painful devaluation of our currency -- the December 16 elections are the next opportunity to remind the world that Chavez is far from invincible.