Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may be leading in the pre-election polls, but global investors areclearly rooting against him: The country's stock market rejoicesevery time his Twitter account falls silent. Investors believe Venezuela will be a great place to make money once it's under newmanagement, and they're betting that will happen soon. Chavez, 57,who has been in power 13 years, is facing his first crediblechallenger in the Oct. 7 election. He's also fighting for his life. |
Since February, Chavez had made almost weekly trips to Cuba for treatment of an undisclosed form of cancer . The details of Chavez's illness are a state secret; he hasn't evenrevealed which organs are affected. But there has been no shortageof doctors and others who are willing to speculate, based onavailable evidence or supposed inside information. Then there wasChavez's tearful (and televised) plea — "Do not take me yet"— at a pre-Easter service. There's growing doubt that Chavezwill survive until election day, much less fulfill another six-yearterm.
Venezuelan stocks, meanwhile, have risen by more than 100 percentsince the beginning of the year. Chavez seemed to rebound after Cuban doctors removed a tumor thesize of a baseball from his pelvic region last June. He was wellenough to give a 10-hour speech in January. But in February, hereported a new lesion, and it was back to Havana for more surgery.
Throughout the seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, he sought to reassure Venezuelans of his vitalityvia his loquacious Twitter account. (For the benefit of citizenswithout smartphones, his tweets are often read aloud on state-runtelevision.) So it didn't escape notice when his thumbs stopped moving for morethan a week in April. He didn't even call the state TV station tomark the April 19 celebration of Venezuela's independence fromSpain. In May, after another weeklong silence led to rumors thatChavez had died, he phoned from Havana to assure TV listeners hewas governing capably from afar. He hadn't been heard from for fourdays when he tweeted on June 1 to congratulate New York Metspitcher Johan Santana, a fellow Venezuelan, for throwing ano-hitter.
Chavez's socialist revolution is ailing too. Inflation hit 27.6percent last year in Venezuela. The state-run utility companiescan't seem to keep the electricity or water on. Staples such asmilk, vegetable oil and toilet paper are in short supply.
Chavez threatens to nationalize any industry that can't keep upwith production, and blames the shortages on greedy capitalists— speculators and hoarders trying to drive up prices. Inreality, those companies aren't producing because they can't makemoney, thanks to government price controls. Meanwhile, Chavez has treated the national treasury like his ownprivate ATM. He's spent billions of his country's oil revenuesmaking friends with China and Iran, stocking up on Russian-madeartillery and propping up the fading regime of his mentor, formerCuban President Fidel Castro.
For now, Chavez is using that money to buy votes, devoting billionsto domestic programs including subsidized housing, aid to needyfamilies and the elderly, and a 30 percent increase in the minimumwage. Polls show Chavez with an up-and-down lead over Henrique Capriles,but there's little voter affection for any of the namesoccasionally floated as possible successors, including NationalAssembly President Diosdado Cabello and Chavez's brother, Adan. AMay 29 poll that asked voters who they'd choose if Chavez still hascancer on election day had the president and Capriles tied at 47percent. A bedridden Chavez is going to have a hard time counteringCapriles' energetic door-to-door campaigning. Instead of 10-hourspeeches, he'll have to rely on those 140-character bursts.
Whichexplains why on May 31, the president awarded a freegovernment-built home to his 3 millionth Twitter follower.
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