Today, some 14
million Venezuelan voters have the opportunity to either recall
their dictatorial president, Hugo Chávez, or ratify his rule
a third time. Either way, Venezuela's volatile political situation
spells trouble for the United States.
Elected in 1998, Chávez promoted a new constitution that broadened his powers and then cleverly called a new election to expand his term in office. Since that time, he has eliminated rivals, welcomed Cuban advisers into the government, packed the supreme court with cronies, and managed to hang on to a slim majority in the National Assembly that gives him almost everything he wants.
If not recalled, his grip on the state will tighten and, like Cuba's Fidel Castro, it may never be possible to replace him until he leaves on his own accord or by force.
Such is the state of Venezuelan politics that decades of populist government have decayed into an authoritarian farce. Proof is in the fact that Chávez has invited filmmaker Michael Moore and actor Danny Glover to be electoral observers. While serious monitors such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center are barred from talking to the press or auditing the vote, whatever these celebrities say in the president's favor may be fed directly to reporters.
True, Chávez has polarized Venezuelan society by calling opponents "squalids" and "worms," by converting schools into political indoctrination centers, by creating armed partisan neighborhood spy committees called "Bolivarian Circles," and by declaring it legal for the state to seize private property. And, until a couple of weeks ago, polls showed him losing.
But after pressure from the OAS and the Carter Center forced him to accept 2.5 million signatures petitioning a recall, Chávez diverted between $1.7 billion and $3 billion from the state oil company to pay for new social programs. Thanks to a history of wasteful social spending, corruption and state monopolism, 80 percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line. Now polls show him pulling even with those trying to recall him.
But that may be a moot point. There are several ways he can pull off a victory. New fingerprint recognition machines can malfunction, denying citizens the right to vote in anti-Chávez neighborhoods. Touch-screen voting equipment made by a company the government partly owns can be rigged to render false tallies.
Chávez has used military trucks and state workers to register new voters in barrios favorable to him. And a program called Misión Identidad has naturalized hundreds of thousands of Colombians and other foreigners residing in Venezuela, reportedly in exchange for a pro-Chávez vote.
This may be of little interest to most Americans. After all, rigged elections and autocrats are still an occasional feature of the Latin American political landscape. President Alberto Fujimori ruled for a decade in Peru -- even staging a coup against himself.
But while Fujimori had no designs on other countries, a hostile dictatorship in Venezuela could cause serious regional problems. Venezuela supplies 13 percent of the United States' imported oil and most of the petroleum consumed by Central American and Caribbean countries.
Aware of the hemisphere's dependence on Venezuelan petroleum, Chávez is holding neighborhood critics hostage to continued oil deliveries. In September 2003, he suspended sales to the Dominican Republic, claiming its government harbored Venezuelans eager to overthrow him. Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez lives there, but ironically it was Chávez (as an army officer) who tried to topple him in 1992.
Ultimately, Chávez would like to shift his client base to friendly regimes and China. In 2000, Venezuela began supplying 53,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba, providing half of its petroleum needs on generous credit terms and at below-market prices. China's national petroleum corporation may begin operating two Venezuelan fields, and a proposed pipeline across Colombia will give Venezuela access to a Pacific port to ship to Asia.
More worrisome, Venezuela's treasury is flush from higher oil prices. Chávez can use some of that wealth to aid regional movements and leaders friendly to him. Venezuela's military has already reportedly allowed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas to establish resupply camps in western Venezuela. Chávez has encouraged leaders of Bolivia's indigenous coca growers to rise up against their government, forcing the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada last year.
Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement is a member of a Brazil-based forum of leftist parties and guerrilla movements active in 16 countries in the hemisphere. In November 2003, he inaugurated the Peoples' Bolivarian Congress, which gathered some 400 representatives from 20 countries to condemn U.S. policies, the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the World Bank.
So whether or not Venezuela's recall succeeds, the news is largely bad. If Chávez stays, he will likely consolidate an authoritarian dictatorship in Venezuela and use it as a power base to destabilize other democracies in the region as a means of confronting the United States. If he leaves, there will be limited time for his democratic opponents to undo a lot of the damage he has caused -- and Chávez will make constant trouble for a succeeding government in an attempt to regain power.
For years, Republicans have tried to shove Latin America to the back burner of foreign policy issues, while Democrats have feigned interest with insignificant and ineffective foreign aid programs. Now, the likelihood of regional conflict is on the horizon. It's time for U.S. leaders to stop pretending nothing is wrong.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Orange County Register