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Venezuela's fork in the road: socialism or capitalism?

This election acts as a referendum on Chávez.

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Despite these increasingly socialist tendencies, consumerism is alive and well among Venezuelans of all social classes. It is also estimated that on average Venezuelans use 20 percent of their income for beauty care, while plastic surgery is a booming industry that doubled the number of cosmetic operations during 2006 alone. New, oversized cars such as the Ford Explorer and Toyota Tacoma ply the streets but, like other vehicles are caught in the daily traffic jams that snake through the capital. A trip on the Metro means seeing droves of passengers in designer clothes ostensibly manufactured by Lacoste or Tommy Hilfiger, wearing Christian Dior sunglasses, or tuning to the latest reggaeton hit song on their iPods.

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The question is what type of society will result from this current mixture of socialism and capitalism?

Venezuela is utterly dependent on selling oil to pay for imports, including roughly two-thirds of its food, but what social-political-economic model will it follow? Will it go the way of Cuba, which has exhibited anemic industrial capacity and recently took steps to open up parts of its controlled economy? Or will it be similar to China, whose economy has demonstrated tremendous growth since the 1990s? Either way, Venezuela appears increasingly similar to these countries in its restriction of personal liberty and expression, as well as other rights such as private property ownership.

The election this weekend will provide some hint of an answer. At issue is whether Venezuela, in particular, will become more socialist (through a seemingly unlikely landslide win by PSUV), maintain its capitalistic base (with an opposition victory indicating a rejection of Chávez's intentions), or hold onto a mixture of both (as a narrow win by either side would signal).

Many Latin Americans and their leaders sense that they have fallen off the US's radar while it focuses on fighting two overseas wars. Venezuela has often served as the locus of this region's resentment toward its northern neighbor. Its upcoming election could show whether the influence of Chávez as the most vocal critic of the US is now in decline.

In the meantime, McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy's are located throughout Caracas and always seem jam packed with customers. It appears that the so-called socialist revolution must also have its hamburgers.

David D. Sussman is a Fulbright Scholar in Venezuela.