While Americans focus on the increasingly heated presidential race here at home, they would be wise to keep an eye on another presidential election of consequence for the United States—the one in Venezuela.
This Sunday, millions of Venezuelans will go to the polls in, perhaps, the most fateful presidential election in the country’s recent history—an election that current strongman President Hugo Chávez may actually lose.
Now, you would be wise not to bet the family farm on a Chávez defeat. But political observers believe that the challenger, Henrique Capriles (leader of the united opposition), might be able to topple Caracas’s caudillo, assuming a level electoral playing field.
Besides dissatisfaction with the rule of the Chavistas, one of the other reasons the comandante might feel the agony of defeat is his health. Chávez is battling cancer, which has hampered his usually colorful, aggressive campaigning.
But there is a lot more at stake for Washington than just a democratic electoral process. Chávez and his crowd have been a threat to peace, stability and U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere for years now.
To start, a loss for Chávez could mean a massive defeat for his socialist, authoritarian Bolivarian revolution in a country that previously had a strong democratic tradition and was once a friend of the United States.
His ouster could also end Chávez’s role as leader of the Latin American Left. Plus, it would probably mean a weakening, and perhaps dissolution, of the anti-U.S. league that Chávez formed—and bankrolls—in places like Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba.
Not only has Chávez kept the Castro brothers in Cuba afloat with billions of dollars in annual aid (largely in the form of Venezuelan oil swaps for Cuban technical assistance), he also has assisted the (re)ascendancy of the likes of Nicaragua’s Sandinista-retread president, Daniel Ortega.
A new regime in Caracas also could lead to the pulling in of the welcome mat for Tehran in Latin America, where Venezuela is aiding and abetting Iran in circumventing punitive international economic sanctions due to its nuclear-weapons program.
It gets worse.
A 2010 Pentagon report to Congress on the Iranian military notes  that: “IRGC-QF [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Forces] maintains operational capabilities around the world. . . . Recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.”
Any doubts about this assessment were quickly dashed with the news in the fall of 2011 that the elite Iranian military Qods Force, in cahoots with Mexican drug cartels, was plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a restaurant in Washington, DC.
More troubling down the road is concern about Venezuela’s ties with Iran. If Tehran’s nuclear know-how or burgeoning ballistic-missile capability find their way to Caracas, there is the potential for a twenty-first-century Cuban Missile Crisis.
Venezuela also is believed to have a relationship with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy and terrorist ally. Hezbollah has used the region to raise money and run weapons. Both Iran and Hezbollah have been implicated in the Israeli embassy (1992) and the Jewish community center (1994) bombings in Buenos Aires.
It is certainly possible that in the event of U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran, Venezuela could be used as a launching pad for terror or other attacks against the United States or American interests in the region.
Some, including members of Congress, have called for Venezuela to be added to the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, along with the likes of Iran and Syria, due to revelations about its support for the Colombian narco-terror group FARC.
In an effort to destabilize neighboring Colombia, and in hopes of reestablishing Gran Colombia as accomplished by his hero, the “great liberator” of Latin America Simon Bolivar, Chávez has provided FARC with funding, weapons and safe haven. But the prospects for a positive outcome of peace talks between FARC and Bogotá will improve without Chávez’s backing.
Not surprisingly, Venezuela has become a significant transit country for drug trafficking. Narcotraficantes, including FARC, use Venezuela to export cocaine to the United States, Europe, Africa and beyond, according to the U.S. government.
While not a direct military threat to the United States yet, Venezuela has been arming itself to the teeth with Russian weaponry, including fighters, helicopters and tanks. The country has spent some $5 billion or more in the absence of a threat to its security. (Of course, Chávez claims Venezuela needs these weapons to prevent the United States from invading the country.)
Last, but not least, we should not forget Chávez’s threats to cut off oil exports to the United States. Perhaps it’s bluster, but this threat is not insignificant, considering we get some 10 percent of our oil from Venezuela, according to energy experts.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s policy toward Chávez has been mostly one of benign neglect, which, while toning down the normally cutting rhetoric of the comandante, has done little to tame his anti-American tendencies.
The end of Chavismo would strike a blow for freedom for the Venezuelan people and for this hemisphere, not to mention serve as a strike against the growing presence and influence of the likes of Iran—and other bad actors in the region.
While the outcome of the October 7 elections is generally in the hands of the Venezuelan people, it would be a shame to think we did not do all we could to send Chávez into a well-deserved political retirement.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in National Interest.