Henrique Capriles

John Paul Rathbone

“We could turn Venezuela into Ukraine!” a student protester shouted in Caracas this weekend. It is striking how similar the situations are in the two countries, despite the significant differences.

There have been many tragic deaths in both countries – although about 100 people have died in Ukraine, versus “only” around ten in Venezuela. This difference is one reason why the troubles in Venezuela has not yet captured the same attention as the protests in Ukraine.

Just because Venezuela lacks Ukraine’s immediate geo-political heft – there are no borders in question in Venezuela; Europe’s energy security is not under threat; nor is the reach of Russia’s power or Vladimir Putin’s reputation – does not mean it lacks wider significance.

Caracas provides important economic assistance to Havana, without which Cuba’s economy would sink. Communist Cuba therefore has a vested interest in what happens in Venezuela, just as Russia does in Ukraine – a situation ripe for Cold War style comparisons. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles protest in front of riot police in Caracas on April 15, 2013 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of Henrique Capriles protest on April 15 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

“I will continue governing the country with its people. Street government.” So tweeted Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday night as Venezuela’s president-elect sought to strengthen his hold on the country amid deadly street clashes, a teetering economy and an angry opposition that has disputed his narrow election victory.

It’s a febrile atmosphere: seven people died in riots overnight, 60 were injured and 170 arrested. Back in Europe, fresh from a recent trip to Caracas, many have asked me: is this country nuts?

One way to imagine yourself into the Venezuelan mindset is to picture yourself in an old fashioned American automobile – a yank tank – cruising along one of the rain-stained concrete flyovers that define Caracas’ cityscape. Towering sky-scrapers, built during the 1970s oil boom and now thick with grime, flit by on either side. You have a full tank of gas (it cost just $3 to fill up). It’s tropical hot, and the car’s air-conditioning is broken and unfixable because the spare parts needed to repair it are imported and thus unobtainable due to currency restrictions. No matter: the windows are open. Other cars are jouncing along at high speed in the adjacent lanes. The atmosphere is exhilarating – although you are just making a regular trip to the airport, a half hour drive down to the coast, and your suitcase is in the back.

When I made that trip on the Friday before the election, our way was momentarily blocked by an accident. Think of what follows as just another regular day in Caracas. To avoid the traffic back-up, a white SUV with blue tinted windows was bucking over the concrete lane divider, and then started heading backwards against the traffic towards a slipway a couple of hundred metres behind. Further on, we passed a turning to Ciudad Caribe, a “socialist new town” where earlier that week two police had accidentally shot a child. A furious mob subsequently lynched one of the police officers.

Later, checking in at the airport, I was pulled aside for a routine security check. A bored young soldier rummaged through my suitcase. He found a DVD set of a hit Colombian soap opera I was watching: “Pablo Escobar, Father of Evil”. The badges on his olive green tunic proclaimed him a member of Venezuela’s “National Boliviarian Guard – anti-drugs unit.” His interest perked up, although not for the reasons I expected.

“You know, for me, Pablo Escobar was one of the greatest of men, ever,” he said fingering the DVDs covetously. Read more

Esther Bintliff

(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 14, Venezuelans will choose a president for the second time in less than a year. Hugo Chávez won October’s election; following his death, it’s expected that his chosen heir – former vice-president and acting President Nicolás Madurowill be voted in. But even if Maduro wins comfortably, the presidency is a poisoned chalice. Here are six reasons why.

CHAVISMO When Chávez died, thousands of ordinary people flooded the streets to mourn. They spoke of him in familial terms – as a father, a protector, a benefactor. Their affection reflected the fact that Chávez’s rule brought about material change in the lives of many, particularly the poorest – he cut poverty by half, and increased access to healthcare and education. But it’s worth noting that other countries in the region made similar social progress without the divisions that Chavismo generated.

While there was growing opposition to Chávez – in October, his rival Henrique Capriles secured 44 per cent of the vote – his supporters loved him with a devotion that will be hard for any leader to replicate. That has repercussions for his political movement. ‘Chavismo’ would face a far more uncertain future without the charismatic former tank commander at its head; it was always a highly personalised political project,” John Paul Rathbone noted in December.

The final dividend of Chávez’s charisma will probably be the election of his chosen heir, as even voters uncertain about Maduro are swung by loyalty to the wishes of their former leader. In a video for the New York Times, Simon Romero asks an 80-year-old lady who she will vote for. “Well naturally, this last request of my president who pleaded from his heart that we vote for the one he chose, to vote for Maduro.” Read more

John Paul Rathbone

President Hugo Chavez (L) and Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles (JUAN BARRETO/AFP/GettyImages)

Henrique Capriles may be the underdog at this Sunday’s Venezuelan presidential election. Yet momentum is building behind the 40-year old candidate and Hugo Chávez, 58, increasingly recognises that. The reason for this is the economy, which for perhaps the first time in Mr Chávez’s 14-year rule has become a contestable issue.

Mr Chávez won power in 1998 promising radical things. And he has since delivered on many of those promises. There is now 100 per cent school enrolment, the number of university graduates has quadrupled, and extreme poverty has fallen – by official figures it has halved. But as Arturo Franco, a fellow at Harvard’s Centre for International Development puts it: at what cost these gains?

Take the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness rankings. In 2012, Venezuela slipped two places to 126th out of 144 and is now the region’s worst performer, bar Haiti. On some issues – such as judicial security, trust of politicians, red tape, quality of education and labour rigidities – Venezuela comes last, or nearly last. Not all of this, though, is Mr Chávez’s fault. In the WEF’s 1998 report, Venezuela also came last, or nearly last (although among a smaller sample of 58 countries). Read more

John Paul Rathbone

“Who is Henry?” has become something of a political parlour game in Latin America. I’m referring, of course, to Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s putative president-elect, and Henrique Capriles, the challenger in Venezuela’s presidential election in October. Both Henrys are held up as potential reformers. But how true – or more important, how likely – is that really? Both face serious obstacles. Read more