The government of Canada´s Americas Strategy rests on the pillars of security, prosperity and democratic governance. Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday in elections that will challenge all three.
Hugo Chavez has been in power for 13 years. It is tragic that Venezuela has completely wasted the great China-driven natural resources boom that has helped millions of Brazilians, Colombians, Peruvians and other Latin Americans to escape poverty and join the middle classes. This oil and mineral-rich country is poorer, more dependent and more corrupt than it was when he arrived.
Venezuela is now the most violent country in South America. Canadian investors have rightly stayed away, but have a great deal to offer should Venezuela take the path of progress.
Despite facing a deeply incompetent and corrupt government, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski has an uphill battle. President Chavez has a great deal of charisma and an incredible capacity to win over the masses.
He has created social programs – known as “missions” – that transfer some income to the poor, though it has come at the cost of the public health and educations systems that were in place before Chavez came to power. He has created Cuban doctor-served health clinics by destroying Venezuelan doctor-served public hospitals.
Chavez also has stacked the electoral deck heavily in his favour. All open-signal television stations in Venezuela either strongly support Chavez or abstain completely from political commentary.
Capriles is either attacked, or ignored. Chavez also repeatedly uses and abuses a law that obliges all radio and TV networks to broadcast campaign-style rallies and announcements for hours on end. Chavez controls the National Electoral Council and the courts and uses them to judicially harass opposition figures.
It is clear that these are not the conditions of fair elections. Chavez´s advisors know this. They have refused to invite impartial outside observers such as the Organization of American States, whose recognition of Chavez´s Recall Referendum victory in 2002 should have inspired confidence in its neutrality.
The Carter Center, not exactly a right wing NGO, announced in August its decision not to “accompany” Venezuela´s elections. Chavez´s restrictions would not have allowed them to make their own independent assessment of the elections, and the Carter Center wanted to protect its reputation for independence and honesty. Chavez has made a strategic decision: He prefers keeping his non-democratic options open.
Chavez´s repeated threats of violence are even more worrisome. He said recently that rich Venezuelans should vote for him to avoid “civil war,” and on October 1 three opposition supporters on their way to a rally were shot and killed by Chavez supporters.
Chavez repeatedly talks of the “impossibility” of losing. Given his record in recent years of using institutional control to overturn electoral setbacks, it is hard not to see Chavez´ comments as being part of a non-democratic “Plan B” that would allow him to fudge election results through judicial, legislative, or even military maneuvers. Since Chavez controls all of the levers of the state, violence would tend to favour him.
Another question hanging over the electoral process is Chavez´s health. He has struggled with cancer, and, in a society that enjoys little transparency in government, it is impossible to tell if the President has long to live. Again, Chavez´s rule has created the conditions for violent and non-democratic reactions to dramatic events such as the President´s death or incapacity.
It is almost impossible to imagine Chavez supporters without Chavez himself. The various factions of opportunistic and corrupt military and civilian groups in his camp, along with some people who actually believe in the cause, have nothing to keep them together beyond access to the riches of the oil state and an implacable party discipline.
Given these circumstances, it is difficult to believe that Chavez would accept an electoral loss unless it were overwhelming. Threatening civil war is an exaggeration, but a useful one for him.
Regional powerhouse Brazil is likely to support Chavez unless he engages in blatant fraud. Canada need to watch the situation closely and be ready to denounce Chavez if he goes too far.
Michael Harvey is president of the Canadian Council for the Americas