Avoiding a Bloodbath in Venezuela

Hugo Chávez did not attend last weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Colombia. Instead, he traveled to Cuba for yet another round of cancer treatments. With each new cycle of radiation therapy, it becomes more and more likely that Venezuela will soon be entering the post-Chávez era, regardless of whether the autocratic leftist wins reelection in October.

Before pondering the worst-case scenario, it’s worth reviewing what an ideal democratic transition would look like. In a perfect world, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles would emerge victorious in the upcoming presidential election, and he would be allowed to take office. Capriles would set about restoring the independence and integrity of institutions such as the judiciary, the national assembly, and the federal police. He would reverse the disastrous economic policies that have chased away foreign investors, crippled private enterprise, and unleashed soaring inflation. He would purge the military of corrupt officers with ties to the drug trade. He would dismantle the Bolivarian Militia, a civilian paramilitary force that has become a sort of Praetorian Guard for Chávez. He would terminate the Russian-financed weapons buildup that is threatening to fuel a regional arms race in South America. He would end the gasoline deals and financial cooperation that have turned Caracas into one of Tehran’s chief economic lifelines. He would clamp down on Iranian-backed terrorist organizations operating in Venezuela. He would at least revise (and hopefully cancel) the “oil for credit” agreements that Chávez signed with China. (As former Venezuelan oil official Pedro Burelli told the Wall Street Journal, the agreements represent “a win-win for China and the Chávez government, but not for Venezuela or PDVSA,” the state-owned energy firm.) Finally, Capriles would de-Cubanize the armed forces and other government institutions that have recently experienced an influx of Communist “advisers” from Havana. (In February 2010, The Economist reported that Cuban officials “are helping to run Venezuela’s ports, telecommunications, police training, the issuing of identity documents, and the business registry.”)

Unfortunately, not even the most optimistic observer expects all that to happen. While it is highly encouraging that the Venezuelan opposition has coalesced around a charismatic leader who boasts impressive popularity among the poor and working classes, Capriles -- and thus, the restoration of Venezuelan democracy -- faces a number of daunting obstacles.

For starters, whether or not Chávez survives past Election Day, the ruling regime may not accept a defeat at the ballot box. Indeed, Venezuelan authorities could conceivably rig the vote against Capriles, in the same way that Iranian officials stole their country’s 2009 presidential election to keep Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. As Bloomberg News pointed out in a thoughtful editorial last week, Adán Chávez, the brother of President Hugo and the governor of Barinas state, “has spoken darkly of the need for ‘armed struggle’ to keep the current government in power,” and Venezuelan defense minister Henry Rangel Silva “has said the military would not recognize an opposition victory.” Therefore, “even if Capriles were to defy the odds and beat the still-popular Chávez, his inauguration is not a given.”