For Venezuela, the stakes are obvious: If Hugo Chávez is declared the winner in Sunday’s presidential election, it will be a crushing blow to the forces of democracy. Assuming he survives cancer, a reelected Chávez will be able to consolidate his leftist autocracy, enlarge his pro-government militia, expand his control over broadcast media, nationalize even more businesses, and ramp up political persecution.
If he blatantly steals the election, the way Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the 2009 Iranian election, Venezuelans will likely respond with massive protests, which could lead to deadly violence. Prominent Chávez loyalists, including the Venezuelan defense minister, Henry Rangel Silva, and the governor of Barinas state, Adán Chávez (Hugo’s brother), have suggested that an opposition victory could prompt either a military coup or an “armed struggle.” Chávez himself has warned that a “civil war” could break out.
The man attempting to end his Bolivarian revolution, restore genuine democracy, reduce endemic corruption, and rebuild the private economy is 40-year-old Henrique Capriles, the former governor of Venezuela’s second most populous state (Miranda). Chávez, 58, has never faced such a formidable challenger, nor has he ever faced such a unified opposition. Capriles is a charismatic centrist who, as the Sunday Telegraph reports, “is mobbed, hugged and indeed often groped by adoring women at opposition rallies.” He is leading a coalition of anti-Chávez, pro-democracy parties that have teamed up to save their country from dictatorship and economic ruin.
Again, we don’t know whether Capriles will be given a real opportunity to win the election. All of the major national political institutions (including the supreme court, the legislature, and the electoral council) are subservient to Chávez, who has been violating campaign rules with little or no consequence. For that mater, pro-Chávez thugs have been disrupting opposition rallies, and they will surely try to intimidate voters on Sunday. While millions of Venezuelans are frustrated with rampant inflation and chronic shortages of food, electricity, and housing, not to mention one of the world’s highest murder rates, the ruling regime has gone on a pre-election spending spree, which has helped buoy its approval rating.
Speaking of Chávez’s popularity, his foreign fan club is anxiously awaiting the outcome on October 7. The election certainly means a lot to Cuba, which receives approximately 115,000 barrels of cheap Venezuelan oil every day under a program known as PetroCaribe. Capriles has vowed to abolish these subsidies, declaring that “not a single free barrel of oil will leave to other countries” if he is elected president. Should Capriles win and make good on that promise, the economic impact on Cuba would be devastating. So you can bet that the Castro regime will do everything possible to keep Chávez in power and keep the cheap oil flowing. That’s why Havana has dispatched Communist officials to help manage key Venezuelan institutions, including the armed forces, the police, and the intelligence services.
Nicaragua is another member of PetroCaribe that has benefited from generous Venezuelan oil subsidies. As the Economist has noted, Venezuela is also buying Nicaraguan exports “at a handsome markup.” For example, in August 2011, the Caracas-based daily El Universal reported that while the Chavez government was paying Venezuelan farmers $3,774 for a ton of coffee, it was paying $6,000 for a ton of imported Nicaraguan coffee. Venezuela is also importing a growing amount of Nicaraguan livestock. It now receives more than 12.5 percent of all Nicaraguan exports, compared with less than 1 percent in 2007, the year Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega returned to the presidential palace.
PetroCaribe also includes many poor Caribbean nations, which have become unhealthily reliant on discounted Venezuelan oil. The program surely explains why Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have joined the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), and also why Saint Lucia and Suriname have become “special guest members” of ALBA.
Bolivia joined ALBA in 2006, and Ecuador came onboard three years later. The two South American countries are both led by strongly pro-Chávez presidents who have adopted the Venezuelan model of authoritarian populism. If Chávez were removed from office via the ballot box, it would definitely be a setback for Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador).
A Chávez defeat would also unnerve Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, who counts Venezuela as one of her few close allies. In February 2012, after Argentina inexplicably seized the cargo from a U.S. Air Force plane involved in a police-training exercise, a senior official in the Buenos Aires city government lamented, “Our only friend right now is Hugo Chávez.” Venezuela has provided crucial debt relief to Argentina, and it is now aiding Argentine oil-drilling efforts near the British-held Falkland Islands, which have been controlled by London since 1833 but are also claimed by Buenos Aires. (Britain successfully repelled an Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982.)
The Colombian FARC, meanwhile, has enjoyed Venezuelan assistance for more than a decade. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned several high-ranking Venezuelan military officials for aiding the FARC, including the current defense minister, Henry Rangel Silva. In recent years, Chávez reportedly took steps to reduce the FARC presence on Venezuelan soil — but he only did so, according to Stratfor emails released by WikiLeaks, after Colombia captured Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled and used his extradition as diplomatic leverage. (Makled has revealed that dozens of Venezuelan officials, including 40 generals, were connected to his drug business, as was the FARC.) Moreover, this past summer, residents of the western Venezuelan state of Apure told the New York Times that FARC members were still “moving around the state with alarming impunity.”
Beyond Latin America, the Venezuelan election may decide whether Caracas remains a strategic ally of Tehran. Under Chávez and Ahmadinejad, Venezuela and Iran have increased their economic, financial, energy, and military cooperation. This has helped the Iranian regime evade global sanctions, and it has helped the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah expand its presence in South America. (Last year, Treasury sanctioned the Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA for shipping gasoline to Iran. In 2008, it said the Chávez regime was “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.”)
Capriles, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, has been critical of the Caracas-Tehran alliance. In a recent interview with the Guardian, he asked: “How have relations with Iran and Belarus benefited Venezuela? We are interested in countries that have democracies, that respect human rights, that we have an affinity with. What affinity do we have with Iran?”
In that same interview, Capriles said of Venezuelan relations with China, “Everyone deals with China.” But we don’t know for sure whether he would keep all the “oil for credit” agreements that Chávez has signed with Beijing. “Since 2007,” Bloomberg reports, “the China Development Bank has lent Venezuela $42.5 billion collateralized by revenue from the world’s largest oil reserves,” and this money has fueled the government’s pre-election spending blowout. China is now receiving 640,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil every day, and about 200,000 of them are effectively loan repayments. On September 21, Caracas and Beijing agreed to pursue joint development of the Las Cristinas gold mine in southern Venezuela.
While Capriles has said that “no one in the world can do without China,” he told the Guardian that he would not “buy more weapons” from Russia, a country that has sold Chávez billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment (everything from combat helicopters and antiaircraft missiles to tanks and assault rifles). The Venezuelan leader is close to Vladimir Putin, who recently gifted him with a Black Russian Terrier. Their two countries have stepped up bilateral energy cooperation, and Caracas has officially recognized the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Georgian provinces that Russia invaded back in 2008.
It’s quite rare for a Latin American election outside of Brazil or Mexico to draw much attention from foreign observers. But Sunday’s vote will have ramifications far beyond Venezuela’s borders.
(You can read this article in Spanish here.)