BOGOTA -- It’s been a rough month for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In less than two weeks, he has had to deal with a deadly prison riot, a collapsing bridge, flooding, an embarrassing confrontation with steel workers on live TV and the country’s worst oil-industry disaster, which killed at least 41 and still has families digging through the rubble looking for loved ones.
The avalanche of bad news would be hard on any leader, but this train of troubles comes as Chávez, 58, is heading into an Oct. 7 presidential race that polls suggest is getting tighter.
For the last 14 years in office, Chávez has played the roll of an energetic leader with a common touch. Even when his administration had missteps, voters rarely held their charismatic comandante accountable.
But the scale of this month’s calamities might change that dynamic, said Xavier Rodríguez Franco with Entorno Parlamentario, a legislative watchdog group.
“The events the country has had to face recently clearly show a breakdown in the government’s ability to manage,” he said “And that breakdown is dragging down the president’s image.”
Chávez’s days of discontent started Aug. 15 when a vital bridge connecting Caracas to eastern Venezuela collapsed. Four days later, gangs at the Yare I penitentiary confronted each other with guns and explosives leaving 26 dead, including a visiting family member. It was an embarrassment for an administration that has declared prison security one of its top concerns but has been unable to staunch the bleeding. During the first half of this year, 304 inmates have been killed and 572 have been injured, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which called on the government to step up efforts to disarm prisoners.
The following day, Chávez traveled to the city of Guyana to hold a live broadcast — carried on all TV and radio stations — with workers of the state-run Sidor steel plant. Presidential cadenas are usually tightly scripted and designed to highlight government achievements, and they’re a key part of Chávez reelection strategy.
That’s why Venezuelans were surprised to see steel workers shout over the president and complain that the government hadn’t renewed their labor contract, which expired over two years ago. Amid the commotion, Chávez’s microphone was cut and the broadcast abruptly ended. It was the first time that anyone could recall a cadena being cancelled mid-transmission.
That the outburst took place in a Chávez stronghold (he won 68.8 percent of the vote in Bolivar state in 2006) only underscored the sense of malaise.
Russ Dallen, managing partner at Caracas Capital Markets financial firm, said Chávez appears to be distracted by his battle with an undisclosed form of cancer — which dates back to at least June 2011 — and which the president claims to have beaten.
“This is not the Chávez we have come to know over the last decade and a half,” he said. “Clearly, his illness has affected him and he’s not the maximum leader he has been in the past. And that’s why you see so many things collapsing, and this time the problems are sticking.”
But all the troubles were overshadowed early Saturday, when a huge fireball erupted at the refinery, part of the nation’s largest refinery complex. The blast left 151 wounded and homes leveled.
The government said the plant would be operating again within two days, but the fire was only subdued on Tuesday and the administration now says it won’t be operational until Friday.
Critics blame Chávez, who they say has used the state-run oil company PDVSA, which operates the refinery, as a cash-cow for his pet projects even as it neglects maintenance and repairs.
In 2011, the company invested $39.6 billion in popular social programs, including $4 billion in the government’s housing program. But seven out of nine maintenance programs planned for Amuay that year were postponed due to lack of materials, wrote Daniel Kerner, with the New York-based Eurasia Group, citing PDVSA’s 2011 annual report.
The Amuay accident “highlights PDVSA’s significant operational problems stemming from both severe mismanagement and underinvestment,” he wrote. “In recent years, the firm has become a key financing arm for President Hugo Chávez’s social programs limiting PDVSA’s investment capacity in a context where crude production… has steadily declined.”
The man fighting Chávez for the presidency, Henrique Capriles, 40, has called for full investigations into Amuay, the jailhouse riot and the bridge collapse. Earlier this week, he likened the string of problems to a disaster film.
“This isn’t a movie that unfolds chapter by chapter,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that the government’s candidate [Chávez] can irresponsibly and insensibly say that the show must go on.”
For the moment, Chávez is leading most polls. Datanalisis, a closely followed pollster, has Capriles with 34.3 percent of the vote and gaining versus Chávez’s 46.8 percent. Consultores 21, another major polling firm, however, shows Capriles with a thin lead, at 47.7 percent versus Chávez’s 45.9 percent.
It’s too early to tell if August’s woes will move those numbers. But Kerner predicted the Amuay disaster is “probably not a game changer...Chavez still remains favored to win, but the accident could sway some undecided voters.”
Chávez has pledged millions in aid and offered to build thousands of new homes for Amuay residents. He’s also trying to turn the tables, accusing opponents of being “vultures” who want to turn disaster into political gain.
“Just as we see streams of foam putting out the fire in Amuay,” he said this week, “the bourgeoisie is also using disgraceful streams to try to put out our patriotic fire and fervor.”