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.”

What if Caracas stole the election and Venezuelans responded by flooding the streets to protest? Would the regime do what its Iranian counterpart did in 2009? Would it be willing to perpetrate a Tiananmen-style bloodbath? For that matter, would the military and official security forces obey government orders to massacre civilian demonstrators? What if the military and police refused such orders? Would Chávez or some other Venezuelan leader call on his Bolivarian Militia to complete the task? If the militia began killing civilians, how would the military respond? Would the Bolivarian Militia and the armed forces wind up clashing violently with each other? Could that lead to an all-out civil war? And what would the Castro brothers do? Would they be willing to let the Chávez regime collapse, even if that meant potentially losing the massive Venezuelan energy subsidies that have been keeping their sclerotic dictatorship afloat?

These questions are deeply unnerving. Chávez has created a volatile powder-keg that is ready to explode under certain conditions. He has also transformed Venezuela into an Iranian satellite, which further complicates matters. As the Miami Herald recently put it, “Chávez has converted his country into a virtual headquarters for Iranian espionage in the Western Hemisphere.”

Then there is the issue of Venezuelan complicity in hemispheric drug trafficking. General Rangel and other senior military officers (including Generals Cliver Alcalá and Hugo Carvajal) have already been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for their ties to narco-gangs. Meanwhile, cocaine kingpin Walid Makled, who is now on trial in Venezuela, has claimed that dozens of Venezuelan generals and regime officials were involved in his drug business. Such officials obviously want to avoid prosecution for their crimes, and they are surely afraid (with good reason) that a democratic post-Chávez government would seek their arrest. This gives them extra motivation to help steal the 2012 election or mount some type of a coup to ensure that Chávez or Chávez loyalists remain in power.

Add it all up, and you are left with a dangerously combustible situation. The death of Chávez and/or the election victory of Capriles would present Venezuela with a historic opportunity to repair the political and economic damage of the last decade. But the threat of violence and chaos is all too real.

(You can read this article in Spanish here.)