“I’m with Chávez, the granddad,” says the rosy-red graffiti on a crumbling wall in western Caracas. As Venezuelans vote today for a new national legislature, Hugo Chávez is, as ever, front and centre of the campaign, portraying himself as an avuncular grandfatherly figure. The question is: after 12 years in power, do Venezuelans still back him?
With policy failures adding up, Chávez is banking on his personal connection with the people to keep parliament in friendly hands. There is plenty of reason for disaffection. Inflation-adjusted wages have declined under Chávez, according to the central bank. The government spent much of the money from a seven-year oil boom buying people fish – at times literally, through state-run markets – rather than teaching them to fish. The popular subsidised food programmes have suffered from a scandal over food left to rot in the port. Population and economic growth have overloaded infrastructure, from the power grid to subways and hospitals. And crime has surged. A government study says 19,000 people were murdered last year in a country with a population smaller than Canada’s.
But the president’s personal touch gives him a base of about a third of the population for every electoral campaign. Along with those hardcore supporters, many non-aligned voters also find a lot to like and trust in Chávez’s personally.
The graffiti writer got it right – Chávez has become grandpa. Not only does he have two grandchildren, born during his term of office, but his penchant for hugging and kissing supporters, his capacity to break into spontaneous song or calculated fury, and most of all his forgiving smile after bursts of rage make him one of the world’s most successful politicians. Even his omnipresence on television, taking over the airwaves dozens of times a year for interminable addresses, has its charm – most people just shrug and switch to satellite TV. Ah, our Chávez.
Sitting in lawn chairs by a mosquito-ridden ditch near Lake Maracaibo, where Venezuela’s oil industry was born a century ago, a group of laid-off oil rig workers said they’ll vote for the president’s parliamentary candidates, even though they couldn’t immediately name the politicians. The workers had been camped out for three weeks demanding that Chávez nationalise a shuttered oilfield service company and put them on the swelling payroll of the state oil company. They said they trust Chávez to listen to their concerns.
“Before, you had to be the nephew of the vice-minister or for the government to help you,” Jesus Nuñez, a 35-year-old hydraulic-wrench operator, said as the sun set behind industrial sheds and palm trees. “Now, you avail yourself of any government office and get economic help.” Chávez provided a Cuban-staffed clinic on his street, he said.
The opposition is likely to pick up seats in the legislature in today’s vote but, not for the first time, the vote will be a referendum on Chávez. For Venezuelans pleading for help from the state or placing blame for the country’s ills, all eyes will remain on Grandpa.