IN-DEPTH: Looking left and right in Venezuela’s crisis

How different narratives drive different perspectives as the country’s political and economic crisis rumbles on


After the leader of the legislative assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared on 23 January that he would serve as interim president, the world’s politicians and media have been offering widely varying viewpoints.

Some support Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, others have backed Guaidó and the opposition, whereas some have even chosen to come out in favour of neither side and promote a ‘third way’ or compromise path.

But before the stunning move from a now re-invigorated anti-Maduro movement in Venezuela, there was already evidence of how the media cover the same events differently if we look at Nicolás Maduro’s contested inauguration for a second term earlier on this month.

Here is how leftist broadcaster Telesur covered the occasion:


And here is the video from The Economist, which has decried the Maduro government:


Juan Guaidó’s announcement has been called a coup, a crisis, outside intervention, a challenge to the Maduro regime, a threat to democracy and all manner of descriptions under the hot Caracas sun.

The media have been tying themselves in knots to analyse the continuing instability in the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

For Venezuelanalysis, a socialist online news website, Guaidó’s move should be seen for what it is: Venezuela: Call It What It Is — a Coup

But, as Patricia Laya of Bloomberg points out, Guaidó has cited the constitution to show how his declaration is not illegal:

“In a Jan. 15 column for the Washington Post, Guaido also cited Article 350, which says Venezuelans ‘shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that violates democratic values, principles and guarantees or encroaches upon human rights.'”

Indeed, inside Venezuela, there is strong anti-Maduro sentiment online.

This article from Caracas Chronicles makes it clear on which side of the fence it stands, saying Nicolás Maduro leads a “criminal dictatorship”: As Venezuelan Bishops Recognize Guaidó, Chavista Mobs Terrorize Local Churches.

Looking to the international media, the socialist newspaper Morning Star excoriates the US as an “imperial state” with a bloody history in the region in this article: Stand in solidarity with Venezuela’s people, describing the current situation in Venezuela as “class struggle with the gloves off”.


It is indeed true that the United States does not have a good record in Latin America.

Despite that, no sooner had Juan Guaidó made his announcement – in what was surely a co-ordinated decision – than the United States led a swathe of Latin American nations and other western allies in recognising Guaidó and calling for fresh elections.

Denouncing the opposition as treacherous and proudly supporting the government were its usual backers, notably Russia, Turkey and China.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, criticised the US for ‘violating international law with Venezuela’ in its support for Juan Guaidó and its pursuit of sanctions against the state oil company, PDVSA.

But there has been a slight chink in the armour in more recent days.

On 30 January, the Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “without a doubt, President Maduro’s openness to dialogue is highly commendable”, as Maduro suggested he could consider possible talks with the opposition.

But did the president truly mean face-to-face negotiated talks? Again, there is further room for interpretative differences here based on the translation from Spanish to English, as the Wall Street Journal’s Anatoly Kurmanaev explains.

There were other interesting points to note in reactions in the region.

Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno voiced his support for Juan Guaidó. What is interesting in this case is that under Moreno’s predecessor Rafael Correa the response from Ecuador would almost certainly have been the opposite.

Correa was a paid-up member of the socialist bloc across the region at the time, including former leaders Lula da Silva (Brazil), Cristina Fernandez (Argentina) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile) and one that still comprises Maduro along with Evo Morales (Bolivia), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and Cuba (Raul Castro then, Miguel Diaz-Canel now).

Evo Morales, the leftist Bolivian president running for re-election later this year, came out with strong support of Nicolás Maduro, whose inauguration ceremony in Caracas he attended on 10 January.

Like Ecuador, Mexico has performed a U-turn – only from the other direction.

From 2012-2018, when Enrique Peña Nieto was in charge, Mexico City fell into line with its fellow Lima Group members in condemning the Maduro administration.

Now that long-time leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador is president, we have seen a change – no explicit criticism of the government, with Mexico calling for a third way negotiation between both sides.

Nicolás Maduro attended López Obrador’s inauguration in Mexico in December, although many Mexican members of congress made their feelings clear with chants of “dictator, dictator” when his name was mentioned.

And while all this arguing in the media and discord between regional neighbours and wider world powers continues, the average woman and man in Venezuela still struggle on, as the country battles hyperinflation, with violent and growing protests, crippled by a lack of medicines and basic goods.

A look at Fidel Castro’s legacy

An “astute political brain” who “inspired a generation of leaders”? Or a “figure from a different era” running a government of “sordid lawless killers”?

Heated discussions dominated the morning at this special event at Canning House, the UK-Iberia & Latin America foundation, looking backwards and forwards at the legacy of the former leader of Cuba.

Ken Livingstone paints a positive image of Castro’s global legacy

There were three sections to be debated: Castro’s domestic, regional and global legacies.

The first one saw Antoni Kapcia, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Nottingham, put forward the point of view that the Cuban revolutionary acted and made “decisions within the realm of the possible”, carefully calculating what was achievable and loth to outreach himself on domestic policy.

Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, described the US embargo as “devastating and suffocating”. She also looked to the island’s Soviet sponsor giant, saying that “constraints were placed on Cuba’s room for manoeuvre from the collapse of the USSR”, not just through the American trade ban.

The final speaker in this section was Cuban-born Alina Garcia-Lapuerta. She argued that there was still a “sense of uncertainty” surrounding the future after Castro’s death. Having said that, she did try to look to what might be ahead: “there could be no political change while Castro was still alive…he was too big a figure in Cuban life and Cuban history.”

In the second part of the event, for the discussion on regional legacy, Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba, called in on conference from the United States. He discussed how Latin nations’ friendships and ties with Cuba had come and gone. While at some point in recent history, most neighbour countries had “broken diplomatic relations with the US”, many states had gone on to thrive economically following different models than that espoused by Castro.

The former diplomat raised the issue of the “economic mismanagement and social turmoil” currently afflicting Venezuela, noting that Havana stands by Caracas due to their traditional links. Yet those regional links are weakening, according to Webster Hare, who said that young Latin Americans are today more distant in their political views from what is increasingly seen as the outdated outlook of Fidel Castro.

Steve Ludlam came to the regime’s defence.

The lecturer and member of the Cuba Research Forum drew a picture for the Britons in the audience of Fidel Castro as a mix of “Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan (the founder of the NHS) and the Queen Mother”. He went on to stand up for the “audacious revolutionary” whose radicalism had “strong anti-imperialist and anti-racist” elements to it. He also saw one of Castro’s legacies as the “success of social welfare programmes across Latin America”.

The final section was on the former leader of Cuba’s global legacy. For this, Canning House invited the Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens and the ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

The politician put forward an appraisal of the revolutionary, calling him a “giant” and an “icon to those who want to live in a better country”.

Peter Hitchens delivered the opposite. He described the Castro regime as being treated in a “rock-star way” when it was really a “government of torture”. Hitchens saw Castro’s “boasts of social advances go unchecked” and argued that “people should grow up about Castro…this cult of Fidel should be dropped.”

Questions were taken after each section and there was a notable intervention during the regional legacy part of the morning. The “Ambassador from the British Empire” was lambasted for challenging the fading policies of the Castros by a book publisher and socialist apologist who offered a vehement defence the Cuban leftist model. There were other questions, too, from exiled Cubans, criticising divisions in society created by the lack of a free press and the fact that Castro never held an election.

La Confianza Ciega – a review


La Confianza Ciega is a kaleidoscopic record.

That was the overpowering feeling that I had listening to the new offering from Venezuelan artist Algodón Egipcio. It is an ever-moving artwork that is complex in its rhythms, surprising in its direction and adventurous in its outcome.

At times, it transports you to a relaxing place of late-summer sunshine; at others, you feel as though you are caught up in a stomping riot of colour. His songs consist of several distinct moving parts, with some sections that are structured and others that are more chaotic. You might have a choral refrain, echoes of electro, a shot of Latin hip hop, deeply layered instrumental sections, verse and chorus overlapping to the hints of African and Caribbean beats.

It is synthetic, it is psychedelic and it is a true musical patchwork. This sensory overload can jar but there is respite to be found, especially with the cooling spray of “El Aliento” and “La Estrella Irregular”. It is a most surreal mix of wandering reverberations from an experimental and creative young artist.

The album has a heightened sense of the interconnected and fluid notes of nature, seen in the song names alone: “El Calor Específico”, “El Ciclo del Agua” and “Las Dunas Cantoras”. Into this group we can also place “Las Islas Feroe’, which stands out as the only song named after a specific setting: the windswept and mountainous North Atlantic archipelago.

However, on the whole, La Confianza Ciega is not rooted in one particular place, although Algodón Egipcio himself has hinted at an evocation of a ‘lost’ Caracas in some of the lyrics. The album drifts between moods and feelings rather than clearly delineated locations and genres. It is a refreshing record in its variety of musical flavours and overall sense of brightness: a bouncing parade of experimentation and a twinkling rainbow of sound.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.

Overflow – a review


It starts in a madcap whirl of old-school R&B and London gospel, intertwined with spiralling Latin brass and percussion.

And by the time it comes to an end, nine songs later, the new album from Venezuelan artist Edwin Sanz leaves you gasping at its musical breadth, its daring enterprise, its global depth.

Overflow is an apt name when you bear in mind the three major threads that dominate the record: the range of genres; the complexity of the experimental covers and new numbers; and the galloping Latin heartbeat.

This is tight, roaring fare. Salsa, cumbia and merengue mixed with British church classics. Trumpet solos, major orchestral pieces and Santana-esque wail-blasts of electric guitar.

The third number is a rework of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ regularly-covered “I Put A Spell On You”. It is a belting Latin alarm-call kicked off with domineering and haunting female vocals. The influence of Stevie Wonder comes through strongly in “Something About You”. The cowbells are still trilling away, but this number shows Sanz’s skill when it comes to soul and slow funk.

With “Eres Tú”, we get back to the Latin heritage. It is a typical salsa serenade with a group refrain and a lead male singer, who is classically and deferentially romantic. Songs such as “Cómo Olvidar” are more traditional yet at other junctures on the album he offers gear-shift alterations to the Latin norm: just under two minutes into “Ella” there is a sudden acceleration from a slow-dance romance to a fire of slick salsa.

Overflow is a bilingual album chock-full of international influences and appearances from world artists. The first lines of the opening song are “From New York to Caracas, from LA to the UK”. Sanz has noted how his musical career has been shaped by his time studying and playing in the US and Europe. But though his music has adapted and developed across time and countries he shows his commitment to the land of his birth throughout the album, notably with the final track “Yo Vengo de Venezuela”, a colourful celebration of that country’s rich musical history.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.

Revolution rocked

What to make of the elections in Venezuela?

Punishing the Socialists? Approving the new centrist coalition? A slap in the face for the chavista legacy? Not as much pro-opposition, but more anti-government?

At Canning House in London, three experts debated the results of a most fascinating election, where the ruling left-wingers lost their majority in the country’s one parliamentary house to a huge group of opposition parties.

Julia Buxton, a professor in comparative politics at the Central European University, is a seasoned Venezuela watcher. She was joined by Catherine Nettleton, British ambassador to Venezuela from 2010 – 2014, and the Latin America editor at the Financial Times, John Paul Rathbone.


For the former ambassador, this was the “beginning of a new stage, not a fundamental change to society”. Ms Nettleton said the opposition would now feel under pressure to stay united. This was not the time for celebrations, said Ms Buxton. She warned of a “high potential for instability and disorder” and “a rollercoaster ahead of us”. Caution was the way forward, she said. For the FT’s Latin America editor, it was simple: Venezuela has to change. Mr Rathbone was unsure if now we would see “confrontation or transition”.


The journalist despaired of an “economy in dire condition…[with] too many vested interests”. He reeled off a list of serious problems that needed addressing, including the high risk of default, low foreign reserves and the plunging oil price.

That last point was important for Mr Rathbone. It all boiled down to three letters, he said: “O-I-L”. There were “distortions in the exchange rate…attempts ongoing to reschedule due debts…[and an] audit of state finances was needed”. He summed up his thoughts by sighing that the government’s measures “were not economic policy – this is a lottery”.

Bearing in mind how long it has taken to get the country into this parlous state, this blog asked the panel if there were any quick fixes that could be applied to satisfy an exasperated public.

Catherine Nettleton said several small steps were required across a wide range of policy areas, whereas Mr Rathbone suggested deinstitutionalisation and a sorting out of the troubled and distorted exchange rate.


Julia Buxton highlighted the dearth of a leftist alternative to the current Socialist party leadership, blaming the chavistas for falling out of touch with their grassroots. The election defeat was the price that president Nicolás Maduro had to pay for “sclerosis” and the politics professor went on to hint that the result of the vote “may prove to be fatal for Maduro”. That said, she declared that it would be “disastrous to try to roll back the Bolivarian Revolution”.

Opposition/MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable)

The drivers of that revolution were “still very much in power” for the former British ambassador. Catherine Nettleton underlined the need for the opposition to “prove themselves”. Advice for the opposition’s next move came from Ms Buxton saying they must not “assume they have free rein” and that they “run the risk…[of being] revanchist and revengeful”. John Paul Rathbone did feel though that the “country desperately needs some clear thinking”.

Next move

Security was raised by a fellow audience member as one area where the two sides could hope to find some common ground. Julia Buxton said that she felt the “military was still an important actor”.

Catherine Nettleton looked to the wider region to provide support for Venezuela and Ms Buxton weighed up whether the result was “a protest vote against the government or indicative of a deeper political shift”. She argued that “a strategy of co-existence, co-habitation and dialogue” was necessary. Mr Rathbone looked at the market reaction and left wondering if “the economy is going to be in a tougher place next year”.

‘The Legacy of Hugo Chávez’

On Wednesday 30 April, a conference was held by Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute, to discuss the domestic, regional and international legacies of Hugo Chávez, the former Venezuelan president.

The first thing to say was that I was one of several people who arrived late at the talks because the UK capital was being disrupted that morning as a result of a strike by London Underground workers.

After a prolonged journey to the venue, I crept into the lecture theatre to hear Pedro A. Palma lambasting an economic legacy that he clearly thought was in tatters. Dr Palma, a Venezuelan economist who was a founding partner of consulting firm MetroEconómica, railed against “rampant inflation…an unsustainable situation”, saying that a “180-degree turn” was needed to try to save Venezuela. He referenced several slides showing different economic data and finished by outlining his fears that if action were not taken, there would be what he labelled “the materialisation of an exchange-rate tsunami”.

Someone who disagreed with Dr Palma was the next speaker, Arturo Sarmiento, the president of Telecaribe, a television station. He argued that 13 years of chavismo had led to political stability in Venezuela, and that despite his many critics, ‘El Comandante’ continued to win elections. He admitted that that opposition had been “castrated and suffocated” in many ways but was met by derisive cries from some members of the audience when he called the country’s electoral system “magnificent”. He said that the private sector must start to look at events in Venezuela in a different light and he ended with another statement that drew sarcastic chuckles from a few of those in the room. Mr Sarmiento believed that the arrival of Hugo Chavez into Venezuelan politics “helped avoid what could have been an even bigger social explosion than the French or Russian revolutions”.

Mr Sarmiento was well placed to comment on the media situation, and his response to a question about freedom of the press in Venezuela was firm. He said he had never experienced any censorship regarding any of his media ventures, going on to say that the press had a healthy role to play and that journalists were able to report freely in the country.

L-R: John Hughes, Canning House Chairman; Julia Buxton, Comparative Politics professor; Arturo Sarmiento, President of Telecaribe; Pedro A. Palma, Economist

L-R: John Hughes, Canning House Chairman; Julia Buxton, Comparative Politics professor; Arturo Sarmiento, President of Telecaribe; Pedro A. Palma, Economist

Julia Buxton, a professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy, had given her introductory speech while I was enjoying the gridlock in Piccadilly Circus but I got a taste of her position on the domestic legacy when she answered a question about the record high levels of crime. She agreed that Venezuela was “unique in its levels of criminal violence” but noted that, although crime had risen, poverty had fallen. Ms Buxton called for a “national dialogue and a consensus” on disarmament, lamenting the high numbers of light weapons and small arms in circuit and what she called “the glorification of violence”.

Next up were Dick Wilkinson, a former UK ambassador to Venezuela and to Cuba, and Alicia Castro, the Argentinian ambassador to the UK and former ambassador to Venezuela; they discussed Chávez’s regional legacy. For Mr Wilkinson, who met ‘El Comandante’ several times, the ‘participatory, not representative’ idea of democracy that Mr Chávez introduced was a refreshing method of engaging the masses. The Briton argued that there were four main groups into which you could fit Venezuela’s neighbours when it came to how they felt towards the former president:

1) Friends and supporters: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Caribbean nations

2) Who Chávez thought sold themselves to the USA: Colombia and Mexico

3) Suspicious towards his politics: Chile

4) Not hostile but viewed him with a certain condescension: Argentina and Brazil

L-R: Roger Cartwright, Canning House trustee; Alicia Castro, Argentinian ambassador to UK; Dick Wilkinson, former UK ambassador to Venezuela

L-R: Roger Cartwright, Canning House trustee; Alicia Castro, Argentinian ambassador to UK; Dick Wilkinson, former UK ambassador to Venezuela

Ms Castro spoke after Mr Wilkinson and she was in a combative mood. She denied that her country was condescending towards Caracas and opened her speech by saying “Venezuela is under an international media attack”. She thought that Chávez “gave Latin Americans hope of a better world”. There had been an enthusiasm across the region regarding the “challenge that Hugo Chávez presented to the neo-liberal agenda”, she stated and she went on to praise the “social revolution through democracy” that the socialist leader promoted.

In the questions that followed their discourses, the tension rose in the room as Ms Castro blithely swatted away some of the issues raised with short, snappy answers. She replied to a question from a Venezuelan about the issue of Caracas sheltering members of Colombia’s FARC rebels by asking how old the person posing the question was, intimating he was too young to know much about such matters. She was also robust in answering my question about how Hugo Chávez’s legacy could guide and shape the future of Mercosur, (which Venezuela joined in 2012), when set against the rising Pacific Alliance free-trade bloc. Ms Castro responded by focusing more on wanting to know why “British journalists” were fascinated by the issue of the Pacific Alliance, rather than the arguable politicisation of Mercosur and how the former Venezuelan leader’s policies would or would not guide Mercosur.

She closed with the above statement, a stance that provoked a lot of reaction online, with users both supporting her position and criticising her as a “true Peronist”.

(The third panel saw Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London from 2000-2008 and Diego Arria, a Venezuelan politician, discuss the international legacy of Hugo Chávez – this blog did not cover this final discussion)

Snowed under

Several countries with competing ambitions are involved in the CIA whistleblower’s escapade

Since arriving in Moscow yesterday, Edward Snowden has set yet another diplomatic ball rolling. The cobweb of international espionage winks and nudges seems to be growing daily. The US would like to see Mr Snowden back on home turf as soon as possible to answer charges of spying and communicating classified information, but he has, so far, managed to stay one step ahead of Washington.

He first fled to Hong Kong after leaking details of the questionable intelligence-gathering methods employed by the US secret services, for whom he used to work as an IT engineer. That brought China into the mix, and although Hong Kong has a separate legal set-up to the rest of the country, it did give Beijing the indirect chance to rub the US up the wrong way.

Mr Snowden has flown from China to Russia and he has submitted an asylum request to Ecuador. He was rumoured to have been leaving Moscow today on a flight to Cuba; a journey that was possibly only going via Havana on route to its final destination in Venezuela. Lots of countries are involved and all of them are defending Mr Snowden’s right to speak out. But why? It does appear that one of the major reasons for these nations defending the name of Edward Snowden is to employ this ruse a means to irritate the US. Certainly, the Latin American states involved are all members of the late Hugo Chavez’s leftist ALBA bloc, and love nothing more than having a go at what they see as an overbearing, bullying neighbour to the north.

There has been a lot of talk on this issue so far regarding human rights, freedom of expression and the right (or lack thereof) of governments to snoop on citizens. But it is interesting to look at the list in the paragraph above of the countries now involved in this escapade. Mr Snowden claims to be fighting for freedom of expression but China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador have not been shy to suppress parts of the media that report on issues that they see as a bit too close to the ruling inner circles. The US may be wrong to think that all countries should deign to whatever arrest warrant it has issued for the latest Wikileaks-related secret data releaser. But, on the other hand, Mr Snowden may be wrong to think that a fair trial is a matter of regular, democratic order in places where restrictions on expression – the very issue at the heart of this case – have been all too common in recent years.

Moving against Maduro – Report from anti-government protest in London

On Saturday 21 April there was a large pro-opposition demonstration outside the Venezuelan Embassy in London

To the chants of “fraude, fraude” and “se ve, se siente, Capriles presidente” (You can see it, you can feel it, Capriles is the president), supporters of defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles massed outside in the warm afternoon on the sunny side of the street. In West London’s museum quarter, the Saturday afternoon locals and tourists wandering past the brimming cafes and delicatessens of the neighbourhood were met by two lively sides of Latin political passion: the mostly yellow, blue and red pro-Capriles fans and the colourful rainbow coalition of pro-Maduro demonstrators.

The police kept the two sides apart and they only came to vocal blows. The main points of contention for the opposition were over the administration of the results – such as the apparent ratification of the election outcome before all the votes had been counted – and the resulting calls for an election audit, and for the pro-Maduro supporters it was the alleged undemocratic capitalist-etched attempts to overthrow a popularly and fairly elected government. Here are some of the protesters in their own words:

1. Marisol Mantilla, 32, IT consultant, Venezuelan, pro-Capriles

“The supposed support the chavistas give to the poor is a lie…the real poverty in Venezuela should be exposed…I would like to go back one day but there is security in London…80% of the Venezuelan population is ignorant.”

2. Paul Barbara, 70, human rights campaigner, British, pro-Maduro

“I have solidarity with the poor people of the world and with legitimately elected governments…the Venezuelan voting system is celebrated as a better system than the British one.”

3. Jenny, 31, human resources manager, Venezuelan, pro-Capriles

“I’m flabbergasted. I question how there can already have been an inauguration…it’s a slap in the face and a joke.”

4. Teresa, no age given, artist, no nationality given, pro-Maduro

“The Venezuelans are being oppressed by multi-national companies…we have conviction and the Capriles supporters are scared…you have to tell both sides of the story to be truthful.”



This was undoubtedly a major opposition protest and something that the pro-Maduro men and women lamented was the short notice they were given to try to organise a counter-protest. And the global make-up of the chavista demonstration was notable, with Peruvian, Argentinian, Bolivian, Cuban, rainbow and many more flags strung on the shady side of the embassy building.

The pro-opposition supporters never stopped loud-hailing their anti-Maduro chants and they swayed and seethed against the election results together. The cacerolazo, the classic Latin American pot- and pan-banging protest, was brought to the South Kensington streets. When it was added to the yellow tops, red-and-blue caps, and deep lines confronting the Maduro bloc, it made for a heady effervescence. It was quietly challenged by Morning Star British socialists and other Latin Americans showing their broad spectrum of solidarity that they placed opposite what they labelled as a privileged elite rich enough to be able to leave the homeland and thus be immediately disconnected from the travails on the ground. They defended the scarcity of Venezuelans in their ranks by saying that the true Venezuelans eking out a living at home cannot afford fancy flights to European capitals. When questioned about wealth, many opposition activists were more than willing to defend their expatriate status – “I had nothing when I arrived, I knew no English, I’ve worked hard all my life”, “I married a Briton and return to Venezuela for Christmas” and “how can you question someone’s patriotism just because they are not in their homeland at one particular moment” were some of the responses I received.

If you take the course of the Comandante’s 13 years in power as a whole, then whilst there certainly was positioning and jostling behind him, his throne was never in real danger from either a) rivals from his own side or b) the opposition. He was knocked off briefly during the short coup in 2002, but all that revealed was an unsteady opposition with an unsure plan and a reinforced military standing full-square in league with Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution.

But now, with the mercurial man gone, the opposition senses, perhaps more convincingly then in recent memory, that they have a true chance of derailing the fledgling Maduro administration. Henrique Capriles was defeated by Chavez in October 2012 – the last election that the late ‘son of Bolivar’ fought before his death in March – but this time around, having gone in again for the presidency, Capriles and his supporters are certainly not taking his apparent second election loss lightly. In October he accepted the defeat, despite the energetic campaign he led. But this time around, he seems to be going nowhere against a juvenile cabinet full of uncertain positions and policy and one that is reeling from the death of its brother comrade, the man who answered all previous queries, who filled all previous vacuums and whose exit from the stage has exposed more than ever a country in need of a sure footing. It does not seem to have that at the moment.

Adiós Comandante?

At the weekend Venezuelans go to the polls in a presidential election. Incumbent Hugo Chávez is under pressure

7-O is coming in Venezuela. On Sunday 7 October the South American country will elect a leader who will take it through to pretty much the end of the decade. The favourite to secure the victory in the race is well-known. He is loved and loathed across the world. He is the man who has campaigned on a self-created ideological mix of socialism, nationalism and personality since he was first voted into the Miraflores Palace in 1998. He is, of course, Presidente Hugo Chávez Frías. There is almost no need to say his name, such is his celebrity (or notoriety), and indeed that is one of the electioneering tactics being used by the main opposition candidate.

Henrique Capriles Radonski represents the opposition’s best chance to oust Chávez since the buccaneering leader came to power. Capriles has united dozens of anti-government groupings and parties under his ‘Primero Justicia’ (First Justice) banner. He is also refusing to recognise his powerful opponent by name, preferring to label Chávez as “the candidate of the PSUV” [the ruling government party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela]. Capriles knows the president has constructed a personality cult in the country, be it through his TV programme Alo Presidente or through his high-falutin international speeches attacking one Western country or another; the opposition’s man recognises he has to chip away at Chávez’ charismatic charm in every way he can.

Capriles has been whizzing around the country on his so-called ‘Pueblo por pueblo’ (Town by town) tour, trying to employ the energy that was once synonymous with the president, but who now cannot run around as he once did. Chávez has been suffering from an unconfirmed type of cancer and his team have been unable to silence the whisperers that doubt whether he will be fit enough to serve his country for another six-year term and that ponder the power vacuums that would arise should he be forced to give up power suddenly. The president has been popping back and forth to Cuba as he was treated for the disease and has declared himself cured.

Hugo Chávez is 57 whereas Henrique Capriles is 40 and the younger man has been squeezing every ounce out of his advantage of being 17 years younger than the leader. On Sunday, with a week to go until the vote, he mobilised hundreds of thousands of supporters in the capital, Caracas, whipping up the cheering crowds into a frenzy, shouting “you are the future, you must choose who is in the process of change and who is sick of power”. Chávez was once the forty-something upstart revolting against an entrenched order and the battle he faces on Sunday from Capriles resembles very closely the political fights that he used to pick and win.

Mud-slinging has been as evident in this campaign as in any other. Henrique Capriles has railed against perceived corruption amongst the ruling echelons of the country and lamented the attention that the government gives to foreign matters, saying the focus should be on a more domestic outlook. Hugo Chávez has said his rival will never win the election because he is a “pig”. But there has been a darker side to the election trail, with two members of opposition parties that are backing Mr Capriles’ campaign shot dead on Saturday 29 September by unidentified gunmen, but who were linked by witnesses to the state-owned oil company PDVSA. For its part, the government has said it will bring the killers to justice but it has opened up a bubbling public worry: that an inconclusive result could stoke civil unrest.

Big, social proyects aimed at alleviating some of the widespread civil suffering that is present further down Venezuelan society are a mainstay of the president’s policy bank and have proved very popular. Henrique Capriles has tried to assuage those who fear he will ditch all welfare support by pledging to maintain and improve the social programmes. He has said that he wants to build a ‘Venezuela for all’ but has been criticised by the government as someone who is too close to the interests of big business and religious conservatives. The president could never be accused of being in the pocket of capitalists; he has embarked upon a large-scale nationalisation package drawing many private interests back under state regulation. There is much to separate the men policy-wise, but there seems to be little to split them when it comes to the polls. Hugo is up in most but Henrique has a lead in two of the recent surveys.

The mercurial soldier who once launched a coup attempt on what he saw as the corrupt order in his beloved Venezuela is now the establishment himself. Hugo Chávez is facing an energetic challenge from a rival who has captivated large segments of Venezuelan society just like Hugo used to do. The president has to convince the citizens that, despite the popular appeal of his younger challenger and despite his own faltering health, he is still the powerhouse man to lead the oil-rich country for the next six years. Chávez has to show that he can clean up the awful rising crime and that he can safeguard the economy. In short, (and to use a word that the president himself is not averse to employing), Chávez’ unwritten slogan seems to be ‘better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t’.

Puzzling clues

A Venezuelan government sympathiser claims to find death threats hidden in a crossword puzzle

The supposed inflammatory answers were “asesinen” (they kill), “Adán” (Adam) and “ráfaga” (burst of machine-gun fire). Put together they could seem like a coded threat to the life of the president’s brother, Adán, but the veteran compiler who constructed the puzzle in Ultimas Noticias newspaper last week has totally denied the suggestion of a secret plot. Neptali Segovia was quoted as saying “I have nothing to hide because the work I have been doing for the last 17 years has only a cultural and education intention, and is transparent”.

The man accusing the wordsmith of the alleged subversion was Perez Piruela, a pundit on state TV. Piruela said “It’s a message…I’m speaking in the name of truth” and then went on to draw an amazing comparison between Segovia’s crossword and the coded resistance messages sent by General de Gaulle from London to France during the Second World War. The arguments over the clues go so far as the meaning of the last offending answer, with ‘ráfaga’ also being used daily to describe a gust of wind, not just a hail of bullets.

President Hugo Chávez has now been at home for a week since getting back from Cuba after his latest successful round of radiotherapy. He has admitted that the illness and subsequent treatment have been a setback. However, he says he is determined to recover enough to reach a level where he can get back on his political horse, rejoin the presidential race and gallop freely past Henrique Capriles, his opposition challenger in the October election.

“As the hours and days pass, I’m sure that with God’s favour, medical science and this soldier’s body that envelops me, I will get back to where I must be, in the front line of the battle, alongside the Venezuelan people, promoting the socialist revolution.”

The last week has been a busy one for Chávez as in the past seven days he has also created an advisory body called the ‘Council of State’. The new national group will have nine members but it has already come into question with regard to the unorganised issue of political succession. The Bolivarian leader of the country has not designated anyone to follow him in the short-term, should he succumb to his illness, or in the long-term, if and when he steps down. Just before one of his recent trips to Cuba for another round of cancer treatment, he jokily warned his brother, (the crossword-concealed Adán), against trying to wrest the presidency from his control behind his back while he was lying in hospital.

But on a more serious note, it seems that the president has not even considered the possibility that he might not be able to stand in the autumn vote, and he has equated his health battle with the battle against the West: i.e., one that he must win, one that he will win, and one that unites all anti-imperialists. Nor has he even come clean about the idea that he might truly lose the election. He has said openly that his rival will not be able to defeat him, but, if Capriles does win (the unwinnable election), then as a ‘democratically mature’ president, Chávez has also said that he will freely stand aside.

With a leader as misty and mercurial as this, it is no wonder that political paranoia is on the rise in Venezuela. The presidential ballot is too far off and too uncertain to call just yet. But as we have seen this week with the scandal over the apparent ‘death-clues’ crossword, it would not be too odd an idea to suggest that the result of the election may not truly lie with the pollsters but with the puzzlers instead.