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The Hugo Chávez cult is over

As Venezuelans get ready to head to the polls for the most closely fought presidential election of the past 14 years, one question is at the forefront of everyone's mind: does Hugo Chávez still have it? By "it", I mean his legendary, intense, emotional connection with the poor – a kind of attachment that has, for many, a feeling of religious fervour. Of faith. "Chávez is the only one who has ever really cared about the poor" – you hear his supporters say it again and again, with real feeling, and now more than ever it's the centre of his pitch to voters....

But 14 years on, as even his most hardcore supporters acknowledge, Chávez's experiment in 21st-century socialism isn't really working. After the chaotic nationalisation of most of the agro-industrial chain – from the farm to the supermarket – food shortages have become chronic, with various staples disappearing from shelves. Lines at subsidised government grocery shops are long, and particularly scarce commodities sell out almost the second they're delivered....

That Venezuela's economy doesn't grind to a halt, Zimbabwe style, amid the waste, corruption and mismanagement of incompetent central planning is down to a single word: oil....

This year the opposition has finally united and rallied around Henrique Capriles, an energetic young state governor who has put pragmatism and problem solving at the centre of his campaign. Capriles can't match Chávez for charisma, and doesn't try to. But after 14 years of deepening economic dysfunction, administrative chaos and dependence on oil, he has sensed an opening for a no-nonsense campaign centred on institutionalising the revolution's social advances while sweeping away its legacy of political sectarianism, ideological rigidity and mismanagement.

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