Venezuelans reflect as inauguration postponed

With Venezuela's Hugo Chavez postponing his presidential inauguration which had been set for Thursday, analysts across the oil-rich nation are reflecting on the benefits and drawbacks of his 14 years of populist governance. 

As the longest-serving democratically elected president in Venezuela's history, Chavez has improved access to education in the country, which - like most of Latin America - had been marred by high levels of inequality and exclusion.

Chavez won his fourth election in October by ten percentage points against his challenger, Henrique Capriles. Most analysts agree that access to education, programmes for the poor, political engagement, and funding for sports and culture have improved during the Chavez era. However, insecurity has risen, the country has become more polarised and inflation remains a major concern.

Economic debates

The National Institute of Statistics of Venezuela reported that the percentage of people coming from poor homes decreased from 20.3 percent in 1998 to 8.5 percent in 2011.

"The poorer sectors [of the population] are consuming [more], they have jobs and better income," Maryclen Stelling, a professor of sociology at Central University of Venezuela and a government supporter, told Al Jazeera. Social programmes known as "missions" in poor areas are bringing new jobs into long-neglected communities, while government grocery stores sell subsidised food to low-income people.

Government critics say subsidies have hurt the broader economy: more food has to be imported, and this spurs inflation.

The country's currency, the bolivar, is subject to rigid currency controls. Officially, it trades at 4.3 bolivars to the US dollar, but the black market rate is more than 10 bolivars to the dollar. Average people cannot easily convert their money into foreign currency.

"The state is the only producer of foreign currency," Willians Ruiz, an independent economist and government critic, told Al Jazeera. "The government realised that by manipulating the currency it could have a vast control of national economic performance… the economy ends up subjected to the interests of the régime."

For many analysts, divisions among Venezuelans is part of the price for a change in government policies and the inception of a new socialist project.

"The country has wounds of pain in its recent history caused by the corruption, the violence that we have suffered, and now we have a country completely divided," Ignacio Contreras, a member of the opposition Christian Democrat party (COPEI), told Al Jazeera.

According to some analysts, 2012 saw the most murders in Venezuela's history. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an NGO monitoring crime, estimated that 21,692 people were murdered in 2012, yielding a rate of 73 killed per 100,000 people.

Regardless of what happens with Chavez's health, whoever holds the presidency is under pressure to address Venezuela's crime problem.

Sports and culture

One of the few things government supporters and opponents agree upon is that more state resources have been invested in the country's sports facilities and film production since Chavez came to power.

The government spent 300m bolivars ($70m) to restore the Poliedro de Caracas, one of the country's most important sports centres, and built more than 5,000 sports facilities for students.

The local film industry has also benefited from increased investment and government support. Venezuela grabbed its first Oscar nomination in 2010 for the government-supported movie "Hermano", a story of two brothers growing up in a slum who are torn between the dreams of becoming professional soccer players and the gang lifestyle that is a common draw for young men in many of the country's poor neighbourhoods.

Aside from everyday concerns like the economy and security, some of the changes during the Chavez era are harder to quantify.

Political consciousness

For instance, political participation has risen significantly and citizens - whether they love or hate their ailing "Comandante" - are involved in the day-to-day struggles of politics in unprecedented ways.

"Venezuelans are mindful about their duties and rights, and [are active in] either [pushing] for changing the country or [to] oppose its change," Stelling said.

Turnout in the October 7 election was a record 80.4 percent of Venezuela's 19 million registered voters, and people around the country have been holding vigils praying for the president's health.

"There is a process of increased political maturity, including from the opposition. Venezuela is now a better-organised society," Stelling said.

Others believe that Venezuelans might be more politically active, but feel Chavez has created something dangerous. International affairs analyst Elsa Cardozo told Al Jazeera: "During Chavez's presidency there's been a strengthening of a personality cult that focused in the concentration of control and power."

Yet even the government's fiercest critics are in some cases more content to deal with the enemy they know, rather than the current period of uncertainty unleashed due to the president's illness.

"He represents order and stability," said Contreras, the opposition supporter. "I foresee a social and political crisis in Venezuela if Chavez dies."

With the country's Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday that postponing Chavez's swearing-in ceremony is legal, a political crisis doesn't look likely in the short term, despite the views of some opposition activists.

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