Chávez’s Foreign Fan Club

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.