U.S., Venezuela Hold Very Different 2012 Presidential Contests

BY Michael D. Mosettig  September 29, 2011 at 10:30 AM EDT

There’s little resemblance these days between politics in the South American nation of Venezuela and those of the United States — except when it comes to dates.

As U.S. Republican contenders slog through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina this coming January and February, the would-be opponents of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez will be competing in their own February primary. If the opposition sticks to its pledge to unite around the primary winner, that candidate will face off against Chavez a month before U.S. voters choose between President Obama and his Republican foe. (Venezuela is one of three major Latin American nations holding elections next year, along with Mexico and Argentina).

Since Chavez came to power in 1999, he has managed to overpower or outfox a usually divided and ineffective opposition, according to Venezuelan pollster Jose Antonio Gil Yepes. The difference this time, Gil Yepes told an audience at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington on Wednesday, is that the opposition appears more united and its leading candidates are politicians with experience dealing with real people’s issues.

Gil Yepes, a Ph.D graduate from Northwestern and president of the firm Data-Analisis, said all the numbers point to a potentially dead-even election.

He said the electorate is divided: 30 percent ardent supporters of Chavez’s brand of socialism, another 30 percent vehemently opposed to the one-time military man, and the other 40 percent uninterested in political and ideological arguments and most worried about inflation, unemployment and increasingly what they perceive as a drain of money from the state-owned oil company.

The pollster also had a warning for the opposition: “If any opponent proposes retaliation [against Chavez or his supporters], he will not go anywhere.” Seventy percent of Venezuelans, he added, are tired of political strife.

In response to questioning, Gil Yepes acknowledged that Chavez’s health is a big unknown. Chavez had a cancerous tumor removed from his pelvis and four treatments of chemotherapy, all in Cuba, but beyond that, specifics about his health are in short supply. Chavez contacted state television on Thursday to tell Venezuelans to “pay no attention to rumors” about his health. The Nuevo Herald of Miami had earlier reported he had entered the hospital for kidney failure, citing unnamed sources.

Also, still to be determined is the opposition candidate. Out of a cluster of young, attractive, experienced politicians, the lead contenders are: Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the state of Miranda surrounding Caracas; former Caracas Mayor Leopoldo Lopez (The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica recently overturned efforts by the Chavez government to disqualify Lopez for running on grounds of alleged corruption); and Pablo Perez, governor of the western, oil-producing state of Zulia.

As he wrapped up his talk, Gil Yepes did point out another major difference between the elections in Venezuela and the United States. He said Chavez and his top military officer have vowed they would not hand over power.

Photo of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by AFP/Getty Images.

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