Hugo Chavez and Venezuela

Picture from New York Times.

The year 2012 plays host to several important Presidential elections around the world: those in France, the first presidential elections in Egypt following the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power, and the elections in the United States with President Obama up for reelection in what seems to be an increasingly partisan climate.   Another important presidential election this year is found in Latin America: specifically, the October contest between Hugo Chávez and Henrique Capriles in Venezuela.

After 13 years in the presidency, President Hugo Chávez is up for reelection and is facing his most difficult challenge to his control yet.  President Chávez is especially vulnerable this election year due to his ongoing struggle with cancer and falling popularity rates.  The accusations that President Chávez makes against Capriles and his supporters display his vulnerability.  Such accusations include an assassination attempt on Chávez’s life being foiled through decoding messages sent through crossword puzzles in Ultimas Noticias, the highest selling daily newspaper in Venezuela.   Accusing opposition groups and the U.S. of assassination attempts is a rhetorical tool that Chávez utilizes frequently.  For example, Chávez suggested that the United States may have found a way to give people cancer and has turned this new power on him and other Latin American leaders.

Chávez’s Venezuela has developed a reputation for being friendly to anti-U.S. groups.  The 2010 Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism expresses concerns about Venezuela allowing groups such as Hezbollah to perform financial operations within it borders.  Additionally, analysis has shown that Venezuela has had dealings with armed rebel groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and even asked the FARC to kill Chávez’s political opponents.  However, the Chávez administration has denied that such associations have taken place, and there has never been evidence to specifically link President Chávez to these orders.

President Chávez has also made efforts to strengthen Venezuela’s relations with Iran.  In 2010, he spent two days in Iran and met with President Ahmadinejad during this trip.  During this visit, Chávez spoke out against international sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program and agreed to cooperate with Iran in areas such as oil, trade, and construction.  In 2012, with Iran facing international sanctions concerning its nuclear program, Chávez played host as President Ahmadinejad toured a number of South American countries.  Iran is not the only Middle Eastern country with which Venezuela has developed a relationship.  Chávez has also used money from Venezuela’s oil industry to support the Assad regime in Syria.

Due to the antagonistic path Hugo Chávez has led Venezuela, the United States would welcome a change in power.  However, the United States must avoid doing anything that may appear to favor, support, or aid Capriles in his campaign against Chávez.  Despite losing popularity, Chávez would portray U.S. backing Capriles as a form of U.S. imperialism and convince many people to turn away from Capriles.  The U.S. must maintain such a postion in the event that Capriles wins the election and takes the Venezuelan presidency. Even if Chávez loses the election, he maintains a large, devoted support base and will continue to affect Venezuelan politics without the office.  Should the U.S. seem anxious to recognize and welcome in the potential Capriles administration, Chávez could use his power to cause problems in the country.  If the United States wants to improve its relations with Venezuela, thus reducing the diplomatic and security problems that have resulted from the current configuration, it must recognize that as long as Chávez has the ability to influence politics, the U.S. must be careful not to seem to interfere in Venezuelan politics.  While this may take some time to actually occur, it may be the only way that Venezuela-U.S. relations will improve in the future.

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