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Has Hugo Chavez Lost His Mojo?

Venezuela’s charismatic and outspoken leader Hugo Chavez faces his toughest challenge yet for the presidency from newcomer Henrique Capriles.

Chavez, 58, has held the top seat in the oil-rich Latin American country since 1999 and is seeking another six-year term on Sunday. He’s has enjoyed popular support, especially among the poor, for years. But some of his policies have generated controversy, including the price-fixing of food staples and granting more state control over the oil industry.

Chavez faced a coup attempt in 2002 and a recall referendum in 2004, surviving both. His health became a factor when he secretly went to Cuba last year for the removal of a cancerous tumor. He had another smaller tumor removed earlier this year.

His illness didn’t stop him running for what would technically be a fourth term. But the race with 40-year-old Capriles appears to be a tight one, which led us to ask a group of Latin America analysts, “Has Hugo Chavez lost his ‘mojo’?”

Shannon O’Neil

Senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

With Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez facing the first real competition for the presidency since 1999, one can legitimately ask if he has “lost his mojo.” Many point to domestic concerns, including skyrocketing crime rates and increasing inflation; others highlight his health challenges as reasons for the tight race. But the real change is not Chavez, but rather the Venezuelan opposition, which seems to have finally found its “onda” in the youthful and energetic Henrique Capriles, the former governor of the state of Miranda.

For much of his reign, Chavez has benefited from the unwavering support of roughly a third of the country’s population. Another third has been adamantly opposed to his government. In the 2000 and 2006 elections, Chavez crushed Venezuela’s divided opposition, benefiting from their infighting to capture much of the remaining middle. Yet this time around his opponents unified — for the most part — after holding a competitive primary. And the centrist Capriles has found a way to appeal to those wanting some, but fearing too much, change.

Chavez still boasts one of the highest approval ratings in the region with 64 percent, and many respected pollsters give him some 50 percent of the vote. But they also show that Venezuelan opposition candidate is not far behind — a significant change in Venezuela’s political arena.

Miguel Tinker Salas

Professor of Latin American history at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

Judging from the intense campaign schedule Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has maintained just a few months after many in the press and opposition predicted his imminent death, it appears Chavez has not lost his mojo. His mojo appears to be working on the massive rallies of supporters he has addressed throughout the campaign.

However, the question of Chavez’s lost mojo does not provide a full picture of what has transpired in Venezuela. The fixation with Chavez fails to account for the dynamic and at times contradictory relationship that exists between the president and the myriad of social movements in the country, movements that predate his rise to power. One thing is clear: There is no going back to a pre-Chavez Venezuela dominated by a small political class representing only a portion of the population. With or without Chavez, Venezuela has fundamentally changed; groups of people previously excluded from the political process now demand to be heard and their concerns acted upon.

For decades, policy analysts in Washington and academics in the United States promoted the notion that Venezuela represented a model democracy, an exception to developments elsewhere in the Latin America where many countries confronted leftist insurgents and military dictators. Blinded by this perspective, many authors failed to recognize the rising discontent and political ferment that existed in Venezuela well before Chavez’s rise to power. Indeed, widespread social and political movements have contributed to the rise of the Chavez phenomenon.

On many levels, Chavez can be credited with expressing popular discontent that under different conditions might have turned to violence. Instead his candidacy provided an electoral outlet that challenged traditional politics by contesting and winning national power through the ballot box, not through bullets.

Chavez like other leftists has proven better at identifying problems than in implementing the promises made during campaigns. This is a problem for moderate reformers like President Obama, too. Under Chavez, the Venezuelan government has introduced substantial improvements in education, health, housing and access to food. However, it is obvious that many challenges remain in the economy and the political system, limitations that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles is hoping capitalize on in his campaign. In the end, however, whether or not Chavez loses his mojo will depend on how true he remains to the ideals espoused by the various movements that sustain his government.

Michael Shifter

President of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

Hugo Chavez is surely not the same candidate he was six years ago, when he trounced the opposition challenger. Back then, Chavez was in sound health, his rhetorical powers were at their height, and he had ample resources thanks to high oil prices. He shrewdly took advantage of an inept and disorganized opposition, and benefited from two foils — George W. Bush and then Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, both of whom were hardliners who often played perfectly into Chavez’s confrontational style.

Today, Chavez is a diminished figure, and his “mojo” has eroded. He is ill, which has notably affected his presidential campaign this time around. His energy level has declined, his machinery has frayed. The country has continued to deteriorate — reflected in decaying infrastructure, shortages of basic goods, skyrocketing crime, and high inflation. Bush and Uribe are long out of office. In the region, his political support — never as robust as commonly thought — has dissipated further. A number of Venezuelans who had given Chavez the benefit of the doubt no longer do so. They are tired of worsening conditions and have reached their limit.

What has perhaps most thrown Chavez off balance has been the emergence — for the first time in his 14-year rule — of a unified and effective opposition. Henrique Capriles has run a remarkably smart and energetic campaign. He is competing for Chavez’s core constituency, and has admirably resisted succumbing to his taunts and provocations.

Still, the fact that the election appears to be very tight suggests that Chavez hasn’t entirely lost his magic. Such an utterly dismal governance performance and squandered opportunities should, in most circumstances, result in a strong opposition victory. But beyond the advantages associated with one-man rule, Chavez retains a sentimental connection with many Venezuelans. He projects that he is working tirelessly on behalf of the poor. As long as he has lots of money to spend, Chavez’s “mojo” is unlikely to vanish.

Ray Suarez talked to Shifter and Moises Naim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about how Chavez might rebound after cancer surgery, in this July 2011 NewsHour interview:

More Resources:

Slide show by Beth Garbitelli.

We’ll have a recap of election results on Monday here on the Rundown. Till then, view more of our World coverage.