As the hemisphere’s political leaders gather in Colombia’s Caribbean city of Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas, some observers believe the summit is “likely to be marked by grandstanding of the sort seen in 2009” when radical posturing by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez seized the headlines
“In the absence of an agenda, this has become a forum for the lowest common denominator,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director of the Council of the Americas. “The story becomes Ortega’s harangue and Chávez’s book club. And people like that can’t pass up the spotlight, so they’ll do it again.”
Hundreds of Chávez supporters marked the 10th anniversary of an abortive coup against the authoritarian populist with a demonstration through downtown Caracas. The march drew criticism from opposition presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, who said Venezuelans should oppose all unconstitutional actions aimed at ousting civilian authority.
Chávez was imprisoned for his role in orchestrating a military coup d’état against the elected government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992.
“All coups are bad, all of them,” Capriles said. “There are no good coups because in the end they are all a breakdown of the constitution.”
The former governor of the populous Miranda province, who emerged as the opposition’s sole presidential candidate after easily defeating four rivals in primaries that attracted three million voters, has been attracting support from Chávez’s support base amongst the country’s poor and working class.
“Many outsiders think that the only person who has support among the poor is Chávez, which is absolutely false,” he said. If that were the case, I never would have been elected governor and I wouldn’t be a viable presidential candidate,” he said.
But there has been growing speculation that Chávez may succumb to cancer before the poll, giving sinister domestic and foreign forces a pretext to consolidate authoritarian rule.
“Minister of Defense Gen. Henry Rangel Silva has developed a plan to impose martial law if Chávez’s deteriorating condition causes any hint of instability,” writes Roger F. Noriega, a former ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state.
“In my estimation, the approaching death of the Venezuelan caudillo could put the country on the path toward a political and social meltdown,” he writes in Foreign Policy, noting that Chávez’s “lieutenants and foreign allies are behaving as if he were already dead — consolidating power, fashioning a ‘revolutionary junta,’ and plotting repressive measures.”
A range of autocratic actors are poised to ensure that any post-Chávez transition does not take a democratic direction, including a powerful cadre of narcomilitares officially deemeddrug “kingpins” by the U.S. government; the Chinese, who loaned more than $20 billion to Chávez over the last 18 months; Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Qods Force, which has invested millions “in infrastructure in shadowy facilities throughout Venezuela”; Russia, which is considering a $1.2 billion deal for natural gas and oil and eager to protect a purchaser of more than $13 billion in Russian arms; and, of course, Cuba’s Castro brothers:
Cuba’s Fidel and Raúl Castro are desperate to preserve the life-blood of Venezuelan oil that sustains their bankrupt regime. According to a source who was briefed on conversations in Cuba, Raúl has counseled Chávez to prepare to pass power to a “revolutionary junta”; Venezuelans who are suspicious of the Castros expect them to pack the junta with men loyal to Havana. Cabello does not trust the Castros, but with thousands of Cuban intelligence officers and triggermen on the ground in Venezuela, the Castro brothers are a force to be reckoned with.
Nevertheless, Noriega insists, “the Soviet-style succession that corrupt Chávistas and their Cuban handlers are trying to impose on the Venezuelan people is anything but a done deal. There is room and time for friends of democracy to play a constructive role” and to counter a grave and growing threat against the security of the United States and its allies in the region”
“Venezuela’s military is not a monolith, and Chávez has undermined his own succession strategy by giving the narco-generals such visible and operational roles,” he contends. “The fact that the narco-generals will be more willing to resort to unconstitutional measures and repression to keep power and carry the ‘narco’ label sets them apart from the rank-and-file soldiers and institutionalist generals.”
There is much the United States and the international community can do without interfering in Venezuela’s internal politics. Although the leaders of the democratic opposition are determined to keep their distance from Washington, they must at least show the flag in the United States and other key countries to elicit the solidarity they deserve. Moreover, anyone who thinks the opposition can take on Cuba, China, Russia, Iran, drug traffickers, and Hezbollah without international backing is just not thinking straight.
Unfortunately, the career U.S. diplomats in Washington responsible for Venezuela have spent the last two years downplaying the mess there and the three years before that neglecting it altogether. So if there is any hope for U.S. leadership, it will require the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama. Alas, in our own neighborhood, “leading from behind” is not an option.