Wednesday, April 26, 2006

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. 

The Venezuelan opposition now has two declared candidates who want to stand against Chavez in the December 3rd elections. They are Teodoro Petkoff, director of the anti-Chavez Tal Cual newspaper and former economy minister under the Caldera government, and Julio Borges of the Primero Justicia (Justice First) party which is a relatively new middle class (some say yuppie) party.

Quite frankly I hadn’t intended to spend much time on this campaign, as it is likely to be a non-event. Chavez consistently polls around 50% in all the “if the election were today who would you vote for” polls while Petkoff and Borges hardly ever break 10%. With Chavez’s approval ratings hovering around 70% and the economy continuing to boom it’s hard to imagine anyone defeating him. The opposition, in spite of their public utterances, know this all too well which is why they are likely to find a reason to excuse themselves from the election and avoid yet another humiliating loss.

All of this would make for one big yawn, except that both Petkoff and Borges have already dabbled in offering electoral proposals to woo Chavez’s base. Petkoff for instance has already floated the idea of a “CestaTicket Petrolera” to give a portion of Venezuela’s oil revenues directly to people. “CestaTickets” are a coupon employees are given in Venezuela every month to cover their meal costs. Petkoff’s idea would be to give every low income Venezuelan a similar coupon which they could use for whatever they wished – it would simply be a cash payout of part of the oil revenues.

Its not clear how much money that proposal would cost nor how he would pay for it. After all it bears keeping in mind that the last time Petkoff was in the government Venezuela for all intents and purposes withdrew from OPEC, pumped oil like it was going out of existence, and helped oil prices plunge to less than $10 per barrel. If he pursues those policies again he likely won’t have to worry about how to spend the oil windfall, there won’t be any.

But that is not the biggest issue I have with Petkoff’s proposal. What I find fascinating is that he now suddenly in favor of just handing out cash. This is a very quick 180 degree turn for him as up to know he has been one of the people slamming Chavez for his “cheap populism” and “vote buying” social programs. Adding to that criticism we were always told that Chavez’s programs did nothing to truly lift people out of poverty but rather simply created a culture of dependency. Yet while Chavez’s “Missions” have given people stipends, to get those stipends one has to be participating in an educational program – from basic literacy programs to college classes – or receiving vocational training. Other Missions directly provide basic foodstuffs or medical care. Yet the cash that Petkoff says he will hand out could be used on alcohol, drugs or simply gambled away and it does nothing to further peoples education or skills. In other words, if Chavez’s social programs are “cheap populism” Petkoff’s proposal is ten times worse. Nevertheless, it is amazing to see how quickly a person can change their tune in hopes of picking up a few votes.

Then we have Julio Borges who has recently discovered that the Missions really are a good idea after all. This from his campaign web site:

“Missions without exclusion
Julio Borges

We agree with the Missions

In the house to house visits that we are doing throughout the country and in the large numbers of popular assemblies that we have carried out in more than 80 localities in the east, west, Andes and the south, there have been many points of agreement. One of those is the social programs developed by this government, the so-called Social Missions. With all those we have spoken to we have said the same thing – we think the Missions are a good idea. If there is one thing no-one can disagree with its that they hit the mark: they have paid an immense social debt that we had with the millions of Venezuelans who for decades have been excluded. In Justice First we have always had a consistent philosophy: good ideas should always be supported and for that reason we are in agreement with the Missions, but with Missions improved as to make them high quality social programs. We agree with the Missions, but definitely Missions without exclusions.”

The article then goes on to complain that not enough money is being spent on the Missions and that if money wasn’t spent abroad (a point P.J. greatly exaggerates) or if there wasn’t so much corruption (examples please) the Missions would be better. I hope Chavez is listening loud and clear to this demand – SPEND MORE MONEY ON THE MISSIONS. Coming from people who up until very recently were opposed to the Missions this is quite amazing – or maybe when they speak to people in the barrios they realize these programs are so popular they have no choice but to support them.

In any event, it is breathtaking to watch the speed with which the Venezuelan opposition, which up until recently was decrying the spending on social program, claiming that Mercal stores were undermining small business people, and that Cuban doctors were killing people through malpractice, has changed its tune. The Missions are now apparently such a good thing one has to wonder why they never thought of them in the 40 years they were in power. And there is no better social policy than just handing out as much cash as you can – the opposition doesn’t need any sophisticated academic studies are needed to know that.

Truthfully though, all this has me a little concerned for the opposition. What exactly are they going to do come next December 4th? A resounding defeat is more or less assured so they won’t have what they most crave – power. Yet they also won’t have what the powerless often like to find solace in – their dignity and their having stood on principles. Will they be able to even look themselves in the mirror after all the groveling after a few votes? If it keeps this up the opposition will stand before the world on December 4th thoroughly exposed, with no principles, no dignity, nothing it can say it believes in. What a sad spectacle – people who want nothing more than to get power for themselves yet who no matter how much they prostitute themselves can’t get it. I’m truly embarrassed for them.


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