By Michael W Edghill*
Perhaps the 2012 election that has the greatest potential to change the landscape of United States foreign policy is one that few Americans are paying attention to: Venezuela’s next presidential election, scheduled for October 7, 2012. Venezuela watchers are waiting to see if Hugo Chavez can once again scheme his way into another term in office or if the opposition, the finally unified Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD), can defeat the defiantly anti-American president. The latter would not only be significant because of the socialist and anti-American foundation that has paved the way for Chavez to become one of the most influential leaders in Latin America. Considering the fact that many of the actions of the Chavez government conflict with US objectives; whether it be support for democratic institutions, the isolation of Iran, or fighting the drug war; the election of a Venezuelan president who is less preoccupied with opposing “the imperialists” could further American interests, not just in Latin America, but globally.
Since the mid-2000’s, the Chavez regime has used the Bolivarian Alliance; a regional trade bloc intended to be a counter-weight to US trade agreements; to support other leftist governments throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Slush funds from Venezuela’s vast oil wealth support the Ortega government in Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the Castro regime in Cuba and others. These governments have been accused of suppressing political opposition through violence and intimidation, unequal wealth redistribution to impoverished supporters, corruption, bribery, and political patronage. If funding from Venezuela dried up, it would be much more difficult for those power brokers to cull support from domestic elites, who will later be rewarded for their loyalty, and their impoverished citizens, whose votes can be bought with government services. As long as Chavez remains in power, those lifelines will not only be available, but they may get stronger as the discovery of the Orinoco Belt of extra-heavy crude promises to inflate Venezuela’s financial strength.
At the same time, the relationship between the Chavez government and Iran has been getting a lot of attention lately. Hugo Chavez’s friendship with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is well chronicled, although fears over Iran reportedly building its largest embassy in Venezuela have been overblown. Still, more than 200 agreements have been signed between the two governments, including Venezuela’s offer to provide Iran with refined gasoline, as well as plans for the Venezuelan state-run oil company, PDVSA, to invest about $800 million in the development of new gas fields in Iran. As long as Chavez holds power, oil revenues from Venezuela will be funneled into social projects of the Iranian regime’s choosing, limiting the effectiveness of western efforts to isolate and punish Iran.
The Venezuelan-Iranian relationship continues to draw the attention of US foreign policy makers. What has captured the attention of most Venezuelans, on the other hand, is corruption, the vast increase in urban violence, and Chavez’s grab for unchecked power. Opposition candidates are discussing all of these issues in order to build popular support for their campaigns ahead of the February 12th primary. Whoever the candidate is, the opposition to Chavez hopes that the MUD coalition holds together and can carry over its momentum from the 2010 parliamentary elections to the October 2012 vote. At this point, we really don’t know if the upcoming election will be free of government interference because of the wild card that is Hugo Chavez. Known for consolidating power in the executive, stacking the judiciary, and having his party loyalists take to the streets on to intimidate people who might consider voting for the opposition, Chavez has also indicated that his government would respect free elections in October. Indeed, the fact that, Chavez’s own United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lost its substantial majority in the 2010 parliamentary elections suggests on this last point he may be sincere. Yet Chavez often talks of respecting democratic practices. A defeat at the polls, though, could spell the end of the one thing Chavez defends perpetually: his leftist social movement that he terms the Bolivarian Revolution. It remains to be seen how much “democracy” Chavez is willing to accept if it threatens those interests.
Any conversation about Chavez and the upcoming election would be incomplete, however, if it failed to entertain the possibility of an election without Chavez. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the Bush Administration, Roger Noriega, a noted hawk when it comes to Chavez, is on record saying that sources indicate the health of Hugo Chavez is much worse than the president admits. In fact, Noriega believes that Chavez will not survive to see next fall’s election. If that is the case, all bets are off. Before he reached a point where he would be unable to lead, Hugo Chavez would likely appoint a successor, perhaps turning to his brother, Adan Chavez. In the event of Chavez’s death, a more dire circumstance might involve a military coup. Bruce Bagley, a political scientist at the University of Miami, has suggested this possibility. Ironically, the best thing for the opposition in Venezuela might be that Chavez survives his fight with cancer. Only then can the opposition legitimately rebuke the Chavez platform and, hopefully, achieve a popular mandate.
US foreign policy has a lot at stake come October. A Venezuela that no longer supports Iranian interests could be of great benefit to the United States if sanctions and increasing pressure from European powers don’t deter the Islamic Republic from continuing its pursuit of nuclear technology. A Venezuela without Chavez would be likely to drastically reduce aid to Bolivarian Alliance states, thereby improving the possibility of regime change in those countries due to public frustration over their governments inability to provide those things they have now become accustomed to. Furthermore, a Venezuela without Chavez would be more interested in oil exports to the United States, which has obvious benefits for the United States, as opposed to the current trend of reducing exports to the US and increasing exports to China and other nations. Venezuela could also be a US ally in its work with the Colombian government against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other paramilitary narcotics handlers, instead of an enabler of these groups, as the Chavez government seems to be.
The October elections in Venezuela hold the possibility of removing a big thorn in the side of American foreign policy while simultaneously advancing US goals of promoting democracy and ensuring American security regarding drug traffickers and a nuclear Iran. But it’s a long way from here to October.
Michael W Edghill earned a B.A. in History from the University of North Texas and teaches courses about the Caribbean and U.S. Government in Fort Worth, Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com