Jim Armitage: Time may not yet have come for the man who would rescue Venezuela


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The Independent Online

Global Outlook Hugo Chavez's Venezuela is one of the most violent countries on earth. Caracas saw more murders than Baghdad last year, and Mr Chavez himself has said the murder rate is the fifth-highest on the planet.

Par for the course, then, that ahead of tomorrow's elections, two supporters of the opposition leader were shot dead.

The dynamic young Henrique Capriles is hoping to knock Mr Chavez off the presidential perch he has occupied since 1998.

In all honesty, despite the close running of the polls and the mass demonstrations of Mr Capriles' supporters, it feels unlikely that he will win, particularly if Mr Chavez manages to galvanise a big turnout of the poor, whom he has been busily courting in recent months with big handouts from the country's vast oil wealth.

But I could be proved wrong. Unquestionably, the 40-year-old contender is giving an ageing Mr Chavez the fiercest competition of his political life. We've just seen the long-reigning Mikheil Saakashvili accept his party's defeat in Georgian elections; could this be the week of surprise overthrows of once-impregnable regimes?

Whichever way it goes in Venezuela, the vote will be tight, and if Mr Capriles wins, many fear Chavez supporters will unleash a bloodbath. Mr Chavez himself has warned of civil war if he doesn't prevail at the ballot box.

Of course, this is of serious concern to all of us on humanitarian grounds, but establishing security would also be President Capriles' priority if he were to have any hope of attracting the foreign investment central to his economic plan.

I first wrote of my concerns about an eruption of violence in Venezuela in this column a couple of weeks ago. Subsequently, Mr Capriles' campaign team got in touch to offer an interview with their man, via email, to give him a right to reply.

Mr Capriles, a lawyer by training, wants to woo the investors and governments of the US and Britain, so perhaps it should be no surprise he responds to my questions with the platitudes of a Washington or Westminster politician. But, in a way, this is what governments and businesses like ours need in Venezuela. Someone less confrontational than Mr Chavez, with whom they can work.

First, I ask him to address the fears that his victory would provoke great violence. He responds: "Elections are won with votes. If we win the vote, the other candidate will have to admit defeat. The October 7 election will open the doors to the future and everything will run smoothly, I promise you. Venezuelans are tired of so much fighting. We want to make peaceful progress."

He is right in one sense. Ordinary Venezuelans are tired of the violence that stalks their cities every day. But in the real world, an angry, pro-Chavez union in the country's only proper industry – oil – is hardly going to bend over backwards to prevent aggressive demonstrations, or worse, if Mr Capriles takes the helm. In fact, they will probably do all they can to stymie change.

And, having been chased out of town by Mr Chavez in the early 2000s, investors will need some serious evidence of social and economic stability before coming back – evidence Mr Capriles will struggle to provide.

I'm not alone in my concerns. Earlier this week, analysts at the investment bank Brown Brothers Harriman advised that, even with an uncontested landslide victory, Mr Capriles would struggle to clean up the "economic mess that is Venezuela".

I ask him how he would convince the outside world that Venezuela can be a safe place to invest in the long term. He replies: "I would tell them we are focusing on the Brazilian economic model, where the public and private sectors work together while the state builds trust, respects rules and has legal certainty.

"This will generate new employment opportunities for Venezuelans so they can pay taxes and we can have good social welfare. We will create opportunities for all Venezuelans, because we believe in the capabilities of our people and appreciate the efforts of each of us to progress. So we want to tell British firms and western oil companies that the new Venezuela is an attractive and secure investment."

The Brazilian model established by Mr Capriles' political hero Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has indeed proved a success.

Although its economic growth is wobbling a touch now, Brazil has successfully opened up its natural resources to the likes of the UK oil and gas explorer BG to create a surge of new wealth, much of which has been channelled into improving the lives of the poor.

But Mr Chavez's hard-socialist influence is pernicious throughout national and local government; he has nationalised, and hence centralised, so much of the country's economic power, that pushing through Lula-style privatisation reforms will be painfully slow at best, impossible at worst.

It saddens me not to be more positive about the prospects of what could be a thriving Latin American country. Mr Capriles seems a genuinely intelligent and likeable character – and something of an Anglophile to boot.

He wants to diversify Venezuela from the dominance of oil, telling me how he wants British investors to back its tourism and agriculture industries. The UK government has already been working with him personally on aid projects, as he says: "We have always had the best relations with Britain. On the first day I became governor of Miranda [the country's second most populous state], we went to the British embassy in Caracas and have collaborated with social projects for people in the state. It was much appreciated. This alliance has been really important for our environmental and educational projects here."

Our ambassadors were clearly right to identify in Mr Capriles a man worth knowing for the future. But I fear that his time is not quite yet.