After 14 years in power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez faces his toughest election yet, as he deals with a strong opposition candidate and national doubts about his health. Chávez’s biggest obstacle in his re-election campaign, however, may be his own record in office.
A soaring crime rate and doubts over whether the populist leader could have done more with the country’s vast oil wealth continue to hound him in the final weeks of his campaign.
"It's overwhelmingly clear that Venezuela has wasted the windfall," said Francisco Monaldi, an economist and director of the International Center of Energy and the Environment at Caracas' IESA business school, according to the Associated Press. "You should have had much greater economic growth, much greater reduction of poverty."
Supporters of Chávez, however, argue that there has been progress since he took office in 1998. The infusion of around one trillion 'petrodollars' has allowed him to secure his support among the country’s poor through cash handouts, social programs and a number of state-run grocery stores.
Since taking office, Venezuelan incomes have risen, poverty fallen and unemployment has dropped from more than 13 percent in 1999 to about 8 percent. The Andean nation also rose quickly up the ranks in the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures a range of indicators from living standards to life expectancy.
The country is falling to pieces...Where is the oil money going?
- Naybeth Figueroa
But compared to its neighbors such as Chile, Argentina, Peru and Brazil, Venezuela’s progress has not been quick enough for some. Each of those four nations averaged between 3 and 5 percent average growth a year.
Venezuela, on the other hand, averaged only a 2.8 percent annual increase of gross domestic product between 1999 and 2011, according to International Monetary Fund figures. By that measure, the country was outperformed by every other member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries except Libya. Even war-torn Iraq posted higher growth.
“The country is falling to pieces," Naybeth Figueroa said, a Venezuela tennis instructor. "Where is the oil money going?"
The money is going all over the place.
Much of it has been sent to the country’s more remote regions, where the government has spent more than $300 billion on "social development" programs, including health care and education.
Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, has more than tripled its government contributions, from $16.5 billion in 2004 to $58.6 billion last year.
Spending on social programs, however, is not the only place where Chávez has expended the country’s oil money.
Chávez has spent billions on the military, buying up Russian-made fighter jets, helicopters and rifles. University enrollment has also more than doubled, and one of the biggest expenses has simply been supporting a growing bureaucracy.
The number of public employees has ballooned during Chávez's presidency, from about 1.3 million to 2.4 million. And Chávez has made clear that if he's re-elected, "that's going to keep going up."
Despite all the spending, critics argue that Chávez has ignored some of the nation’s basic needs and has failed to modernize the nation.
Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles has argued that more should have been spent to improve police forces as the country’s violent crime rate soars.
Under Chávez, Venezuela’s murder rate has skyrocketed to the fourth highest in the world, kidnappings are rampant throughout the capital of Caracas and the country has become a hub for the South American drug trade.
In 2011 there were 18,850 murders, up from 4,550 in 1998, along with 16,000 kidnappings, up from a few hundred in 1998. Only eight out of every 100 murders committed in the country of 28 million end in an arrest.
"Venezuela has become a criminalized state," said Vanessa Neumann, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, according to USA Today. "You have drug traffickers and Colombian guerrillas operating in the country, and government officials have become involved with them. That makes it difficult to combat crime."
While Chávez has blamed the uptick in violence on capitalism and American culture, some argue that it is actually the socialist leader’s own rhetoric has made things worse.
"The government is confused as to how to respond to the upswing in crime," said Roberto Briceño-León of the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia. "They view using the police as a bourgeois and repressive measure that was used by their predecessors. They want to use new solutions, but they just aren't working."
Chávez’s rival, Capriles, has capitalized on the growing concern about crime, which Venezuelans have ranked as their most pressing issue.
The right-leaning politician has promised to fire corrupt police officials, deploy over 20,000 more officers throughout the country and launch an immediate campaign to disarm the country.
"Whoever has an illegal weapon will have to turn it in, or we will come for it," Capriles said at a recent rally.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this piece.