CARACAS, Venezuela—During the 2004 U.S. election, the division between Bush-Cheney supporters and anyone-but-Bush voters set a high-water mark for political polarization. But compared to the electoral rift that exists in Venezuela, the U.S. populace may as well have been singing "Kumbaya" two years ago. On Sunday, Dec. 3, citizens in this South American country will decide whether to grant President Hugo Chávez another six years in office or replace him with the governor of Zulia state, Manuel Rosales.
Chávez—who has governed Venezuela since 1999—is favored to win, due to the strong following he commands among the poor, who make up about half of the population. That prospect has the country's middle class and wealthy residents breaking out in hives, not least because a landslide victory could pave the way for decades of chavista governance: The president has said he will eventually propose a referendum that would allow for unlimited re-election. One sign of how little the two camps mingle is that every Chávez and Rosales supporter I've spoken with here swears their candidate will come out ahead on Sunday (although Rosales boosters contend that Chávez will resort to fraud before he gives up his office).
Given the candidates' polar-opposite electoral bases, you would assume they are peddling radically different platforms. Rosales has indeed hammered away at Chávez's record, criticizing the president's lavish foreign-aid programs and accusing the administration of unchecked corruption. But the two men are both running as strong populists.
That's not out of character for Chávez. Many of his domestic initiatives—like substantially hiking foreign oil companies' tax bills and expropriating private land his administration has deemed idle—have a distinct "I'm for the little guy" tone. But it says something about how Venezuela and Latin America have changed in the past decade that Rosales felt compelled to offer competing populist plans. In the past, the standard-bearer favored by the moneyed class offered plenty of rhetorical solidarity with the needy but few concrete proposals and even less in the way of actual programs if he managed to assume office.
Rosales has broken with that trend: He has built his campaign around disseminating Venezuelan oil largesse—the country is home to the largest proven petroleum reserves outside the Middle East—so that it reaches the most destitute. The mechanism he would use is the so-called Mi Negra debit card, which would provide 3 million poor Venezuelans with several hundred dollars a month to make purchases. And it's not just by offering a handout that Rosales is attempting to curry favor with the economically vulnerable. Calling the card mi negra—a term of endearment that can be loosely translated as "my black lady"—is also a way of honing his man-of-the-people bona fides. What's more, the candidate has been promoting his plan in the country's shantytowns, or ranchos, which haven't been a traditional campaign stop for Chávez's opponents.
The ranchos are home to the president's most stalwart supporters, in no small part because that is where most of his own anti-poverty efforts are based. Over the past eight years, Chávez has poured billions of dollars into the so-called misiones, which offer everything from free eye surgery to cheap milk and sugar to the neediest Venezuelans. Even anti-chavistas say the misiones have done some good; Rosales has said he'd continue most of these efforts if he becomes president. But the fact that Cuban leader Fidel Castro inspired Chávez to create the programs—and supplied doctors and teachers to help staff them, in exchange for oil—has raised suspicions in some circles. In addition to delivering free medical care and cut-rate flour, critics allege, the misiones are vehicles for political organizing, if not outright indoctrination.
After visiting a government-subsidized grocery store in central Caracas, I have to say there is some truth to that assertion. A shop would seem an unlikely place to peddle politics—it allows for much less interaction than a literacy class or a doctor's visit, after all—but everything in the fluorescent-lit space had been created to press the president's agenda. The walls were plastered with posters featuring Chávez quotes, such as: "A revolutionary cannot take refuge in excuses for not complying with his duties; you must be a real soldier. Those who are negligent will have to leave the country." The heavily subsidized Casa food line—which includes pasta, flour, milk, and sugar—is wrapped in packages stamped with articles from the constitution Chávez helped author in 1999, as well as an exegesis on their purpose. This month, the spaghetti label explains that because the media can have profound effects on public health, "in all countries there are rigorous norms to make sure it is used in the most responsible way." Given that Chávez has feuded with media outlets and has hinted that, if he wins re-election, he might clamp down on the most virulent critics of his government, that particular constitutional selection seems a little ominous.
None of the shoppers I spoke with took umbrage: They were grateful not just for the cheap flour but for how Chávez had made a point of focusing so much of his attention on Venezuela's most marginalized. "The ones who came before him didn't do anything for us," said Nelly Jorge, who works as a nurse in a Caracas clinic. A fellow shopper, Irma Teresa Lara, chimed in, "The elites satisfied themselves for a long time. Now Chávez has given us education, heath. How could we not be grateful?"
In the more upscale neighborhood of Chacao, would-be Chávez voters were waiting in line to obtain new identity cards, or cedulas, before Sunday's vote. The people I spoke with said their cedulas had been stolen when they were held up. That's not uncommon in Caracas—the city has the worst street crime in South America. But they weren't pointing fingers at the president. "Because of him, I have a house, one with three bedrooms," said Elvis Alfonzo Silva, who works in a pastry shop. "I've used the misiones clinics. I'm sure the residents of El Country Club [the most upscale neighborhood in Caracas] have a different point of view, but this man has helped the poor a lot."
Silva, and every other chavista I spoke with, wasn't convinced by Rosales' Mi Negra proposal. Not because they thought it was a bad idea, per se; they just didn't believe it would ever come to pass. "That's pure fantasy," Silva pronounced. "They'd never do it." Lara was even archer in her criticism. "This is why Chávez has had to educate Venezuelans," she said. "So they won't fall for that ploy again."
One reason Rosales engenders skepticism is that he got his start as a member of one of the now-discredited political parties that governed Venezuela before Chávez came to power. During that time, the country was hailed as one of the few democracies in Latin America. It is true that there were periodic elections, the press was uncensored, and the few military coups that surfaced (including one staged by Chávez in 1992) were quickly squashed. But it was a democracy that served the interests of the country's elite, not one that attended to the needs of the poor. That opened the door to el comandante, who rode into office promising to redistribute the country's oil patrimony to all Venezuelans.
It is arguably a positive sign that the opposition forces realized that they had to come up with a message beyond "throw this guy out of office" in order to prevail at the ballot box. To be sure, the Mi Negra card smacks of populism, and that economic approach doesn't have a stellar track record in Latin America—despite iconic leaders like former Argentine President Juan Perón, it is still one of the poorest and most inequitable corners of the planet. But Chávez has made it unacceptable to ignore the profound class divisions that exist in this country. Whether or not he manages to extend his government into 2012 and beyond, that could be one of his most enduring legacies.