Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles (above) today “kicked a top aide off his campaign after vague corruption accusations by government leaders, potentially harming his bid to unseat socialist President Hugo Chavez,” Reuters reports:
Pro-Chavez legislators showed a grainy video of the aide receiving an envelope that they said contained cash that could be used to finance the opposition’s campaign or to pay bribes. The incident threatens to link Capriles with the OPEC nation’s decades-long tradition of bribery and embezzlement of oil revenue just three weeks before the October 7 election. It comes a day after several people were hurt when supporters of both sides fought and threw rocks ahead of a campaign stop by Capriles, heating up a campaign already marred by sporadic clashes and virulent insults.
“Those actions aren’t spontaneous. There’s someone responsible for those actions,” Capriles told supporters after reaching the rally via helicopter and motorboat driven by local fishermen that allowed him to bypass a roadblock by Chávez to deny access to the airport.
“It is him, and I say this directly: it is you who wants this scenario, you who wants to spread fear, you who wants Venezuelans to continue fighting each other,” said Capriles.
A former US envoy to Caracas predicts that in the run-up to the elections Venezuela “could experience significant political unrest and violence that lead to the further curtailment of democracy in the country.”
“The great unanswered question is how the government will react if it appears Chavez has lost,” says Patrick D. Duddy, a Visiting Lecturer at Duke University. “Political instability and violence in Venezuela would damage U.S. efforts to promote democracy, increase regional cooperation, combat narcotics, and protect its economic interests in the region,” he warns in a Contingency Planning Memorandum for the Council on Foreign Relations:
Should Chavez appear to be losing the election, die suddenly, or withdraw from public life for health reasons, tensions are likely to rise in Venezuela, especially if the public suspects that Chavez has used extra-constitutional means to preclude or invalidate an opposition victory in order to sustain his regime’s hold on power. Protests over such actions, which could turn violent, may in turn lead to the imposition of martial law and the further curtailment of democratic rights in Venezuela. This would almost certainly trigger a major political crisis in the Western Hemisphere that pits countries seeking to restore democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela—including the United States—against those who support Chavez and the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states.
Capriles currently trails in the polls, but opposition supporters point to a large percentage of undecideds to suggest that Chávez could lose.
“While a Capriles surge is theoretically possible, it does not seem likely,” according to David Smilde, moderator of the Washington Office on Latin America’s blog on Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights:
He has gained some ground, and has shown, at least for a month, the ability to win over the undecided votes with the strong majority he needs. But the underlying numbers make a last month surge look improbable. Chávez has a strong advantage based on his job approval, levels of trust, and respondents’ positive assessment of their personal situation. Chávez also appears to have a formidable advantage in party mobilization.
“If Capriles wins convincingly, is recognized internationally as the victor, and can reassure Chavistas of his intention to work for the benefit of all, trouble also may be averted,” Duddy writes. “Although Chavez has indicated he will respect the results of the election, most plausible scenarios for instability and conflict in Venezuela derive from the premise that the Chavistas will not willingly surrender power and would be willing to provoke violence, orchestrate civil unrest, or engage in various forms of armed resistance to avoid doing so.”
Venezuela isn’t a serious military threat to the United States. With its armed militias, loose guns, corruption-stricken military and weak institutions, Chávez’s revolutionary state is a danger, first and foremost, to Venezuelans. But with Venezuela the fourth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States trouble in Venezuela could scramble the U.S. presidential race.
“Should Chavez appear to be losing the election, die suddenly, or withdraw from public life for health reasons, tensions are likely to rise in Venezuela, especially if the public suspects that Chavez has used extra-constitutional means to preclude or invalidate an opposition victory in order to sustain his regime’s hold on power,” writes the CFR’s Duddy:
This would almost certainly trigger a major political crisis in the Western Hemisphere that pits countries seeking to restore democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela—including the United States—against those who support Chavez and the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Longstanding U.S. efforts to promote good governance in Latin America as well as cooperation on a range of political, economic, and security challenges in the region would be threatened as a consequence.
The crisis would also have significant implications for democracy promotion in the Western Hemisphere:
In recent years, Chavez has become increasingly authoritarian, undermining important political institutions, giving more powers to the presidency, and weakening both civil society and the independent media. The United States should view a suspension or further deterioration in the quality of Venezuela’s democracy as a setback for U.S. policy and for the hemisphere. The emergence of a military junta or a compromised Chavez regime would also likely increase Iranian and Cuban influence in Venezuela. It already has a close relationship with Iran from which it reportedly receives advanced weapon systems and other assistance. Cuba sends thousands of teachers and technical, medical, and security advisers in exchange for an estimated ninety to one hundred thousand barrels of oil per day.
“While the United States should emphasize the U.S. view that only Venezuelans can solve Venezuela’s political problems, it should also encourage democratic countries in the region to make clear the hemisphere’s concern that democracy be preserved, basic political liberties be respected, including press freedom, and violence be avoided,” Duddy concludes.