CARACAS, Venezuela — As President Hugo Chavez promised, many residents of Venezuela's capital awoke early Sunday to the sounds of "El Toque de Diana," a recorded version of military reveille blaring over loudspeakers. It was literally a wake-up call to vote in Sunday’s presidential election.
In his closing campaign rally Thursday, Chavez, a former army colonel, said he wanted to roust Venezuelans to vote early so that his “irreversible” victory would be plain by midday. Most pollsters, however, expect an exceedingly tight vote and that the ballot count could extend into tonight’s wee hours. Although Chavez leads in most polls, some indicate challenger Henrique Capriles could eke out a victory.
In any case, residents in Caracas responded in droves; by 8 a.m., lines a half-mile long or longer were snaking around many of the capital’s polling places, a reflection of the significance of the election in this highly polarized country.
The nation's 19-million eligible voters face a stark choice. If Chavez is reelected to a fourth term, Venezuela will continue along the socialist path he has charted. The redistribution of the country’s oil wealth, housing, ranches and farmland will continue and more private enterprises almost certainly will be nationalized.
If Capriles wins, the takeovers will stop and private property will be more respected, although the former Miranda state governor has promised to retain Chavez’s social welfare programs called Missions, even seeking to make them more efficient.
A Chavez defeat would reverberate far beyond Venezuela’s borders. Capriles said he would end $7 billion in annual oil giveaways that Chavez makes to friendly Central American and Caribbean nations, mainly Cuba, and invest the money in Venezuela.
The region’s political winds might also shift. Many aspects of Chavez’s socialism, as well as his populist and autocratic political style, have been emulated in other Latin American countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Nicaragua. Chavez also has lavished financial aid on those countries.
Even if Chavez wins, some observers think his socialist regime is running on borrowed time, that the former army officer’s abdominal cancer will likely kill him or force him to resign over the next couple of years. If that happens during the first four years of a new six-year term, another presidential election must be held, according to the Venezuelan Constitution, a race Capriles or another opponent would be likely to win without Chavez around to galvanize his base of mostly poor voters.
Such was the argument made Friday by Barclay’s Bank Latin America economist Alejandro Grisanti, in a report in which he recommended that investors consider buying beaten-down Venezuelan bonds.
“If Chavez wins, his first order of business may be to choose a successor,” Grisanti said in an interview this week. “If not now, political change could come in just a little while.”
— Chris Kraul
Photo: Venezuelans line up to cast their votes Sunday at the Petare shantytown polling station in Caracas. Credit: Leo Ramirez / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.