Andrew C. Miller is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
American policy toward Venezuela and its tendentious president, Hugo Chavez, rarely captures headlines. But when it does, the results aren’t pretty. In a campaign spat this July, Mitt Romney called President Obama’s Venezuela policy “alarmingly naïve.” An Obama spokesman, in turn, labeled Romney’s remarks “disturbing.”
Obama administration officials would happily ignore Chavez if they could. They see him as relishing attention from “the Yankee empire.” With Venezuela’s presidential elections approaching, however, the administration might have to give Chavez the attention he craves.
The election, set for October 7, is perhaps the most competitive since Chavez took the presidency more than a decade ago. Chavez’s ill health has limited his campaigning, while his forty-year-old opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski has gained traction by running around the country (literally, in some cases) to show off his youthful vigor. Most polls give Chavez the edge, but surprisingly, Capriles has caught up to—and even overtaken—the president, according to some pollsters.
Will Chavez concede if Capriles wins? What happens if the results are too close to call? What if Chavez wins but dies shortly thereafter? Patrick Duddy, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, looks at these scenarios in a recently released Center for Preventive Action memo, “Political Unrest in Venezuela.”
Venezuela has a highly polarized political climate, which could boil over into unrest—and possibly violence—if the upcoming elections are somehow scuttled. Venezuelans have largely avoided political violence to date, but the threat exists nonetheless. Chavez recently warned of “civil war” unless wealthy voters backed him, and Capriles had to cancel a rally due to reports of armed chavistas threatening his supporters.
The United States would have trouble ignoring unrest in its southern neighbor. The instability would create new opportunities for narcotraffickers, hinder democracy promotion efforts, and put U.S. commercial interests at risk.
Duddy encourages the Obama administration to not sit on the sidelines as the election draws closer. It could, for example, identify actors (including opposition figures) that would face financial and diplomatic penalties for trying to scuttle democratic processes or inciting violence. The Defense Department could also leverage its Latin American and Spanish contacts to stress to “the Venezuelan military leadership that they is obliged to uphold their constitution, respect human rights, and protect their country’s democratic tradition.”
The outcome of October’s polls is uncertain, but the Obama administration should be working now to support a democratic and stable electoral process. If not, President Obama risks appearing, as Romney has said, “out of touch” when it comes to Venezuela.