As the people of Venezuela go to the polls today to select their next president, President Hugo Chavez faces the most formidable challenge he has seen in his 14 years as head of this oil-rich nation. This is an election that is being closely watched by the rest of the world because of the impact it will have on the world oil supply.
Venezuela has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become the world’s number one source of proven oil reserves—with 10 percent more oil than Saudi Arabia and 18 percent of the world’s total. According to a report by the Guardian, Venezuela’s reserves would last another 100 years at the nation’s current levels of productions.
Chavez, 58, whose progressive government has been a thorn in the side of the United States government for years, held a massive rally in the driving rain Caracas this week that featured the leader singing and dancing onstage—his demonstration that he is in good health and fully recovered from the cancer he faced earlier this year.
Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles, 40, is behind in the polls, but has been within 10 points of Chavez. Capriles has attacked the violence that has been widespread in Venezuela, claiming that Chavez has not done enough to keep his people safe. He also promises more jobs for Venezuelans and an end to cronyism and corruption.
But Chavez has been an extremely popular leader in Venezuela because of his willingness to share the oil cash with the people. Chavez received a massive loan from China that he used to increase public spending, raise the minimum wage and increase pensions. He is repaying the loan by shipping 430,000 barrels of crude a day to China.
Chavez also provides gas to Venezuelans so cheap that a gallon costs less than a cup of coffee.
Chavez’s supporters, perhaps as a way to discredit Capriles in the eyes of voters, say he is “stalking horse” candidate for the interests of the U.S. because he has pledged to tear up the agreements that Chavez has cut with China and Russia to send much of Venezuela’s massive oil supply to these nations. The results of the election will have a major impact on the oil needs of the U.S. because Chavez has been intent on trying to wean Venezuela off a reliance on American dollars by doubling the crude exports to Asia. He even has plans to build a pipeline through Colombia to the Pacific Ocean to make it easier and cheaper to transport the oil to China and Asian markets.
Chavez opponents say they don’t believe today’s election will be fair and democratic because Chavez has freely employed intimidation tactics to solidify his support. As an example, they claim that 40 percent of the nation believes that the Chavez administration will know how they vote today.
“Even though technical people tell us that the electoral system, the automated voting system, grants the security of the vote, almost 40 percent of the Venezuelan population believe the government will know how they vote,” said Congressman Maria Corina Machado told Voice of America News.
But his supporters dispute such claims.
“In Venezuela no one is afraid to vote. This is a psychological strategy that the opposition uses to motivate their supporters because Capriles is an awful candidate, and they have abused this strategy to the extreme,” Congressman Carlitos Ortega said.