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  March 13, 2012

Chávez Faces Crime and Housing Shortage as Key Issues in Coming Venezuelan Elections

Gregory Wilpert: Chávez dramatically reduced poverty and remains popular but must solve critical problems plaguing the country
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Gregory Wilpert a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he taught at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-language website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). He moved back to the U.S. in 2008 because his wife was named Consul General of Venezuela in New York and he taught political science at Brooklyn College. Since 2014 he has been living in Quito, Ecuador where he headed up the launch of teleSUR English and his wife took the position of Venezuelan Ambassador to Ecuador. Since early 2016 he has been working as a producer for The Real News.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay.

The presidential elections in Venezuela are scheduled for October of this year. President Chávez is currently in Cuba getting medical treatment for cancer. We are told that the latest tumor has been removed. He says he's feeling better and, after another round of chemotherapy, is ready to enter the election battle.

Now joining us to unpack the consequences or significance of this on the election and the challenges that Chávez will be facing in this election campaign is Gregory Wilpert. Gregory is the founder of He's the author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. He's a adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College in New York. And for full transparency, his wife is the consul-general of Venezuela in New York. Thanks for joining us.

GREGORY WILPERT, AUTHOR: Hi. Thanks for having me.

JAY: So, Gregory, let's just start with—well, first of all, what's the latest that we know about Chávez's health? And, you know, is he going to be able to campaign or not? That seems to be the big question at the moment.

WILPERT: Well, it seems that Chávez went through a successful operation to have a small tumor removed that's not as big as the one he had last year, and it seems like no other neighboring cells were affected. So he's going to be having localized radiation therapy for the next couple of weeks, and maybe another round of chemotherapy after that. Once that's over, I'm pretty sure that he'll return to full campaigning mode, assuming that there's no other return of the cancer. So my guess is that, yes, he'll be, in a couple—maybe in a month or so he'll be in full campaigning mode once again and the campaign would continue. Of course, it's continuing for the opposition all along.

JAY: And you would think, if that wasn't the case, they would have to start positioning someone else to front all of this now. So it's likely that is the situation.

WILPERT: Yes, I think so. I mean, Chávez was on television a couple of days ago, and he seemed to be in very good spirits and very good health, actually, although you never know with cancer, of course. But he seemed to be alright.

JAY: Okay. So let's talk about the main opposition candidate to start with, and then we'll get into the issues that are going to be facing Chávez in this election. So who is he and what do we know about him? And if I understand correctly, he's sort of positioning himself as a kind of Lula type of politics, which is somewhat new for the opposition. So who is he?

WILPERT: His name is Capriles Radonski, or Henrique Capriles Radonski. And he actually belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Venezuela, although he himself might not be quite that wealthy. But his family certainly is, since they also own the largest-circulation newspaper in Venezuela.

But Capriles Radonski himself, he started out as a very, very young politician—actually, still very young. He's only 39 years old. When he—he was actually one of the youngest politicians to be elected to the National Assembly 13 years ago and was a member of a basically neoliberal-to-right conservative party known as Primero Justicia, or Justice First. And since then he's at least rhetorically moved more and more towards the center. And he's really trying to present himself—and he said that he is a progressive, and he's really emphasized that, in other words. And he's also expressed admiration for President Lula of Brazil, former president Lula of Brazil. And so there seems to be a really conscious effort to move towards the left on his part. But I think part of the reason for that is that in Venezuela the whole political discourse, because of Chávez, has moved towards the left. So he's clearly trying to position himself that way because the right wing has been so discredited in Venezuela.

JAY: And there is some tradition in or history in Venezuela coming in terms of elite politics that there has been a section that's a little more center, center-left. I mean, for example, the Venezuelan national oil company was created before Chávez came to power. Is that right?

WILPERT: Yes. I mean, politics in Venezuela has always been a little bit more towards the center-left, especially since it was for a long time governed by a social democratic party, and the state sector in Venezuela has always been very strong. So the right wing in Venezuela, although it's always been present, has—at least if you look at the broad political spectrum from the right wing, for example, in the United States to the left wing in Venezuela—has always tended towards the left-of-center part of the spectrum.

JAY: Now, if we look at the big issues that are facing Chávez in this election, people—let's start with things that people are dissatisfied with, and then we'll move to things people are satisfied with. And just I should preface that there seems to be more things people are satisfied with, 'cause he's still running 55, 65 percent positive in the polls. But certainly number one, I would think, on the list must be crime. Caracas—and Venezuela generally—has one of the highest murder rates in the world. And, you know, this many years into Chávez's power, there doesn't seem to have been that much improvement in the crime situation. So is this the big issue? And what's he going to do about it?

WILPERT: Yes, and the opposition has certainly succeeded in making crime the number-one issue for this election campaign, and, of course, with reason, because crime is indeed one of the main problems in Venezuela. That is, so many other problems have been addressed by the Chávez government, but this one problem hasn't. And the big question that many people ask, of course, who are observing Venezuela as well: why has that one issue gone unresolved? And I think the main answer is that the government kind of assumed that if you reduce poverty and reduce a lot of the problems, the other problems, then crime would go down by itself. But that [crosstalk]

JAY: And let me just interrupt for a sec is that poverty numbers really have come down. Right? There has been some movement on that.

WILPERT: Yes, poverty definitely has gone down. General poverty has been halved during the Chávez presidency, and extreme poverty has gone down by two-thirds, from something like 20 percent to 7 percent. So that's a dramatic improvement. But in the meantime the crime issue haven't been addressed. Mainly (so I think) one of the reasons that that didn't go down is because the police force itself has been completely involved in the crime problem itself, is part and parcel of the problem, because it's so corrupt.

JAY: I know when I was in Venezuela, there was—I heard this joke, which I guess you can hear in other countries, too, but the joke was be careful when you get robbed not to scream, because the police might come.

WILPERT: Right. Exactly. And so this is the—of course Chávez has noticed this or has become aware that this is a problem that hasn't been resolved on its own because of the reduction in poverty. And so only recently have they started addressing the police problem. That is, in the past two years, they've decided they've had to completely reform the police. And this is a very long, very complicated process, because they're literally replacing every single police officer in Venezuela with newly trained people, and it's a long process. It's going to take several years to implement. And it's going to be a national police force instead of one that's based on municipalities. In other words, right now the municipalities are held hostage by their own police forces because they don't have the power to reform them. And so that's why a national police force has to be implemented.

JAY: And why haven't—at least as a transitional measure, why don't they use the army to enforce some kind of security at night on the streets?

WILPERT: I think the main reason, really, is that there is some concern that the army just isn't trained for police work. As a matter of fact, Venezuelans have a long history of being afraid of the military, because of its history in 1989 of repressing riots and shooting to kill on a regular basis back then. And so there's a lot of mistrust towards the military, although Chávez has gone a long way, of course, towards regaining the trust that the population has for the military. But I still think that the combination of distrust and lack of actual police training is probably the main reason.

JAY: And I suppose it would feel, look—and who knows the reality, but it would feel like martial law if there's soldiers all over the street corners.

WILPERT: Absolutely. Chávez is always being accused of being a militarist, and so this would just make that image all the stronger.

JAY: So what are the other big issues? I mean, inflation is higher than—if I have it correctly, higher than average in terms of Latin America. Is that going to be the—is that the next big issue?

WILPERT: I don't think inflation is—. Many people, outside economists, see that as a big issue, but actually for Venezuelans themselves, they've gotten used to it, because even before Chávez, actually, inflation averaged something like 50 percent per year. That is, for the two presidents before Chávez, the average was 50 percent per year. Chávez brought it down to 22 percent per year, which is still one of the highest averages in Latin America, but it's far lower than it used to be.

And that has to do something with Venezuela's dependence on oil revenues. Lots of oil dollars come flowing into the economy, and domestic production just cannot keep up. And so everything gets more and more expensive with the flooding of dollars into the local domestic economy. And imports, of course, could alleviate that, but they don't want to import absolutely everything. And so it's a real problem for the economy that's haunted Venezuela for long before Chávez.

JAY: But are wages keeping up with inflation? 'Cause 22 percent is a big hit to take on your wages.

WILPERT: Yes. Generally, wages do keep up with inflation. The minimum wage is raised regularly to adjust for inflation, and so are regular wages. So in that sense the economy—actually, that's why inequality in Venezuela has actually gone down, precisely because incomes have been going up, especially for the lower segments or the poorer segments of the population.

JAY: So if crime is sort of one of the big, if you want, weaknesses or failures so far of the Chávez government, what are some of the successes? He's running 55, 60 percent positive, so there must be a lot of things that are going right.

WILPERT: Employment and poverty is certainly one of the biggest successes, I would say. Unemployment has reached, also, dramatic lows. It's been more than halved since Chávez came into office.

And then of course there's the decreasing inequality. Venezuela used to be one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, and now it is—except for Cuba, it is the most equal country in terms of income in Latin America. So that's a tremendous achievement in that sense, and a lot of people are very grateful to Chávez for that.

Although you mentioned, well, what's the—you were asking earlier also, what's the other main problem. The other main problem, I think, is housing. And this is something else that the Chávez government has recognized for a long time but only now is really starting to do something about it, because there are still a lot of people living in shanty towns. And so there's a massive campaign to build homes. Chávez's government used to build something like around thirty to forty thousand homes per year, but they actually need to increase it to 150,000 per year minimum, and that's what they're aiming for. Last year they actually achieved that, and this year and the next couple of years.

JAY: And one of the big knocks on Chávez's government has been that the—many of the aims, objectives, and policies are good, but the execution hasn't been very good in various areas. I mean, I don't—how true is that? And if there is some truth to it, then what are they doing about it?

WILPERT: Yes, I mean, certainly public administration is a perennial problem, and the government is often accused of being too bureaucratic and too corrupt, and this is a common problem. And it's another problem that—I think this is one of the few problems that the government has recognized but hasn't really figured out how to deal with it. That is, there are some institutions that have certainly become a lot more efficient, a lot better, but many others haven't. And how to address that problem, there's no clear vision, I think, within the government as to how to do that. And it's of course one of the great weaknesses and the areas where the opposition has the best chances of criticizing the government.

JAY: Well, were pre-Chávez administrations—whatever their politics and interests were, were they any more efficient?

WILPERT: No, actually not. And that's actually one of the reasons why I don't think it has affected Chávez's popularity that much.

JAY: What, people just see that there's a long-term culture of government not being so efficient?

WILPERT: Yes, exactly.

JAY: Well, let's—we'll do another segment where we'll drill into more of this. So just keep tuned, watch in the next few days for part two of our interview with Gregory Wilpert, who will join us again on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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