Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez's lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of "undecided" voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting "You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!"
Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday's election.
"Many see that things are not going well and have brought forward their decision to desert because they think the defeat of Chávez is imminent," Yumar Gomez, a doctor who found his way to Miami, told El Universal. "And let me tell you… many don't want to go back to Cuba." Delia Garcia, a Cuban nurse, added: "Our leaders tell us that Chávez is not certain for October and say that the rate of desertions is now accelerating. That's why I'm leaving. If there isn't going to be any more misión in Venezuela, where will they send us then? To Burundi?"
The revelation that Havana's communist rulers aren't betting on a Chavez victory is another welcome boost for the Capriles campaign. After all, Chavez has never looked as vulnerable as he does now. His grandiose public works schemes are coming undone through the incompetence and corruption that inevitably accompanies the stuffing of political appointees into state-owned companies. For example, FONDEN, a Chavez-controlled fund that has spent $100 billion of Venezuelan oil revenue over the last seven years while bypassing the approval of the country's congress, has come under fire for a range of misdemeanours, from abandoned building projects to the purchase of Russian fighter jets. And after a series of devastating fires and explosions at various oil installations, including one at the Amuay refinery in August in which more than 40 people were killed, it is hard to find a single Venezuelan who retains faith in PDVSA, the national oil company milked as a cash cow by Chavez.
As talk of an opposition victory on Sunday gathers pace, so does speculation that Chavez will consult the playbook of his close friend, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and manipulate the election, perhaps by intimidating voters in areas that lean towards Capriles, or even by stealing it outright. Last week, the Spanish newspaper ABC claimed that Chavez has been readying revolutionary militias, modeled on the feared Basij units in Iran, for mobilization in the event that he is defeated.
Still, as Diego Arria, the former Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN and a leading opposition figure, pointed out in a recent interview with New York's WABC radio, such action is unlikely to be successful without the backing of the Venezuelan armed forces. And so far, Venezuela's military commanders, mindful that Chavez may shortly succumb to the cancer eating away at him, have stated that they will respect the choice of the voters.
Is the Chavez era coming to an end? One would be foolhardy to make that exact prediction, but even so, the signs all point to the Comandante emerging from Sunday's election chastened, and the opposition further empowered.