CUMANA, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez, a polarizing president who has led Venezuela for nearly 14 years, has many advantages over the opposition candidate trying to unseat him Sunday, from the airwaves he controls to the government largess he doles out with abandon. But one especially potent weapon in Chavez’s arsenal is what might be called the fear factor.
Many Venezuelans who are eager to send Chavez packing, fed up with the country’s lackluster economy and rampant crime, are anxious about casting their ballot out of fear that voting against the president can mean being fired from a government job, losing a government-built home or being cut off from social welfare benefits.
“I work for the government and it scares me," said Luisa Arismendi, 33, a schoolteacher who cheered on a recent morning as Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, drove by in this northeastern city, waving from the back of a pickup truck. Until this year, she always voted for Chavez and she hesitated before giving her name, worried about what would happen if her supervisors found out she was switching sides. “If Chavez wins," she said, “I could be fired."
Although polls diverge widely, with some predicting a victory for Chavez and others showing a race that is too close to call, there is wide agreement that Chavez is vulnerable as never before. Handicapping the election is complicated by the angst felt by many Venezuelans that a simple vote for the opposition could bring retaliation.
In advance of Sunday’s balloting, the government introduced a new electronic voting system that many Venezuelans fear might be used by the government to track who voted against the president. Electoral officials and opposition leaders defend the integrity of the system, but there is significant distrust and a big part of Capriles’ campaign has been to reassure voters that their votes will remain secret.
“The government has sown this fear," Capriles said in an interview, adding that the reluctance of people to speak their minds skewed opinion polls in favor of Chavez. “If we can overcome the fear, I believe that we can win this election by a million votes."
The fear has deep roots. Venezuelans bitterly recall how the names of millions of voters were made public after they signed a petition for an unsuccessful 2004 recall referendum to force Chavez out of office. Many government workers whose names were on the list lost their jobs.
Chavez runs a well-oiled patronage system, a Tammany Hall-like operation but on a national scale. Government workers, for example, are frequently required to attend pro-Chavez rallies.