In many ways that near-mystical bond with the poor is the most important of the assets that oil funds. Chávez has been careful to keep the spigots open, channelling a constant stream of populist giveaways to his supporters. An oil-for-appliances deal with China, for example, has allowed Venezuela to import more than 3m Chinese-made stoves, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners and flat-screen TVs, goodies handed out directly to governing party supporters as part of “My Well-Stocked Home” – a government social programme, whose logo includes the comandante presidente’s face. The guiding principle to Chavista social policy is simple: people must never be under the impression it’s to the welfare state they owe their access to oil-financed goodies – all gratitude and loyalty must be focused on Chávez himself. The resulting cult of personality is neatly captured in that slogan. Chávez, we’re told, is no mere politician: he is the “heart of my fatherland” – with that possessive pronoun to cement each voter’s twin loyalties to the nation and its leader. It’s only the tiniest step from that formulation to its flip-side: failure to support the leader is tantamount to treason.
It has taken Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition movement 14 years to decode Chávez’s intoxicating appeal and formulate a compelling alternative. This year the opposition has finally united and rallied around Henrique Capriles, an energetic young state governor who has put pragmatism and problem solving at the centre of his campaign. Capriles can’t match Chávez for charisma, and doesn’t try to. But after 14 years of deepening economic dysfunction, administrative chaos and dependence on oil, he has sensed an opening for a no-nonsense campaign centred on institutionalising the revolution’s social advances while sweeping away its legacy of political sectarianism, ideological rigidity and mismanagement. “Never again should you have to show a Socialist party membership card to access a social programme,” Capriles says in his stump speech, invariably bringing the house down. The line hits home because every person in the audience knows someone who has been shut out of access to the latest oil bonanza for ideological deviance.