The domestic and international implications of Venezuela’s vote

A win by Capriles could drastically change Venezuela’s political landscape.

Hugo Chavez
Cuba could lose an important strategic ally should Chavez lose his bid for reelection [AP]

With so much blanket media coverage being provided to the presidential campaign in the US, it is easy to lose sight of other important international events. On Sunday, voters will go to the polls in Venezuela to decide the fate of Hugo Chavez’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution, which has been 14 years in the making. Though the maverick Venezuelan politician has survived many political challenges in the past, and even seems to have overcome his battle with cancer for the time being, Chavez faces a formidable challenger in the form of Henrique Capriles Randonski.

Compared to other anti-Chavez figures, Capriles is shrewder and more politically adept. Indeed, US diplomatic cables recently declassified by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks underscore the complete ineptitude of the Chavez opposition.  In the run up to the 2006 presidential election, for example, US diplomats noted that Venezuela’s largest opposition party, Acción Democrática, or AD, was “going nowhere fast”. Mincing no words, the US Embassy noted that party Secretary General Henry Ramos Allup was “unimaginative, overconfident, and even repellent” as well as “crude, abrasive and arrogant”. 

The problem, diplomats noted, was that Ramos did not seek unity within the Chavez opposition, preferring instead to plead for international assistance while insulting other party officials. Politically bankrupt, AD failed to advance an effective party platform or address the needs of the Venezuelan poor. In the long-term, US officials noted, AD was unlikely to progress because officials professing alternative views were rarely given a voice. “As a result,” the Embassy wrote, “AD’s voter base, which consists of people who vote for the party out of tradition, is quickly dwindling.”

In June, 2009 the opposition encouraged greater cohesion by creating the so-called Coalition for Democratic Unity, known by its Spanish acronym MUD. Despite such moves, a further WikiLeaks cable paints a similarly bleak picture of Chavez foes. Commenting on an opposition conference, the Americans noted that “among the 50 or so leaders on camera… there were just two female faces visible and very little enthusiasm”.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Over the past few years, however, the opposition MUD has become less fanatically anti-Chavez and appears to have finally gotten its act together. Capriles, an energetic and youthful governor of the country’s second most populous state of Miranda, claims to represent a more moderate, Brazilian-style leftist current in contrast to Chavez’s populism. Hoping to emulate some of Chavez’s popular social programmes, Capriles has set up free health clinics in poor neighbourhoods and provides subsidised food to poor families.        

It sounds good, but a recent scandal has led to questions about Capriles’ true social and economic programme. Recently, an opposition document was leaked to the press which suggested that Chavez’s challenger has a stealth programme to impose right wing “neo-liberal” style economics in Venezuela. According to this article in New Internationalist magazine, Capriles would reduce food subsidies and target the so-called Mercals or government-owned supermarkets providing cheap food to the neediest (for a longer discussion of the scandal, listen to my recent panel discussion on Al Jazeera English).

The scandal caused political fissures within Capriles’ own coalition, with three parties leaving in protest over the revelations. Capriles meanwhile dismisses the entire scandal as a Chavez smokescreen, charging that the documents are bogus and were deliberately planted by the government itself. It’s unclear who holds the truth on the neo-liberal controversy, but if Capriles really has an ulterior agenda then this truly represents a tectonic development in the campaign. 

Problems within the Chavez coalition

Facing the worrying possibility that Capriles might conduct a stealth programme of right wing economic engineering, Chavez says that he will work to intensify Venezuela’s socialist initiatives if he is re-elected. In his own “Bolivarian Socialist Programme” for 2013 to 2019 [SP], Chavez vows to increase the number of so-called local communal councils, for example. Chavez, however, has been unwilling or unable to groom a successor and his worsening health exposes a political vulnerability of his populist political model. With so much emphasis placed on Chavez’s own charismatic leadership, the right could easily derail the Bolivarian Revolution in the event that Venezuela’s leader happens to falter.

 Venezuela set to decide Chavez’s fate

Yet another worry is that corrupt or politically backward elements may have already infiltrated Chavez’s coalition. Indeed, a “well respected political economist” told the US Embassy in Caracas that Minister of Public Works and Housing Diosdado Cabello “was expanding his network of corruption into the financial sector”. The revelations, which are contained in a WikiLeaks cable, suggest that Cabello and his “fascist and military” clique were “gaining ascendancy within Chavismo” to the detriment of older leftists.  

Going further, the economist claimed that Cabello was “amassing great power and control over the regime’s apparatus as well as a private fortune, often through intimidation behind the scenes”. Perhaps, Chavez himself had grown concerned about Cabello but “was unable to diminish” his colleague’s influence. Embassy staff was unable to confirm all of the reports about the Minister, but believed “that people close to the government have been buying, or trying to buy several small banks, and we would not be surprised if Diosdado Cabello and his associates were involved”. 

So much for the Left opposition

According to the Embassy source the traditional left has become “increasingly disenchanted, at least in private, with Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution, largely due to blatant corruption and the realisation that desire for power, rather than achievement of socialist goals, was its driving force”. In light of such corruption, the Venezuelan left ought to have developed alternatives to populist-style rule in order to protect vital social gains. However, even though a couple of lesser known progressive candidates [SP] have tossed their hat in the ring this election cycle, Chavez has not confronted any serious challenge in this regard. 

Moreover, WikiLeaks cables expose the truly crass and shameless political conduct of ostensibly leftist parties in Venezuela. Take for example Podemos, a centre-left party which originally formed part of Chavez’s electoral bloc. Later, Podemos struck out on its own when Chavez sought to incorporate a number of parties under his own banner of the PSUV (or United Socialist Party of Venezuela). Such an apparently principled move benefited the party when additional lawmakers opted to join the organisation. Nevertheless, confidential cables reveal the party as anything but proper. 

In 2008, Podemos leaders met with the US Ambassador in Caracas and “urged US government officials to eschew responding publicly to Chavez’ provocations”. “Strategic silence”, added one party leader, “undermines Chavez’s efforts to persuade Venezuelans that the US government is an external threat”. The same leader added that he was firmly opposed to any efforts to introduce a new “red, very red” constitution. 

Later, Podemos lawmakers met with the US Ambassador once again, and “asked that the United States intervene to help Podemos counter Chavez”. Party leaders unabashedly asked if the National Endowment for Democracy (or NED) or “other US government channels” could do anything to help their party. Perhaps, they recommended, Washington could help to build an internet or cable TV-based communications network to counteract Chavez’s state media. When the Ambassador rebuffed Podemos, party leaders doggedly refused to back down, adding that “now is the time to begin”. 

Noting that “there was an element of panic in their appeal to the Embassy for assistance”, the Ambassador added that Podemos’ request “was framed in terms of the potential risk to US interests from Cuban and Iranian involvement in Venezuela”. Indeed, Podemos deputies did their utmost to highlight Chavez’s ties to Iran and “noted the discontent of many Venezuelans with the level of Cuban involvement in Venezuela, including in the ports”. 

Election could foreshadow dramatic regional reshuffle

Inside Story Americas: What is at stake for Venezuela?

Even as Venezuela navigates between Chavez-style populism, with its many contradictions and allegedly corrupt tendencies; the crass and opportunistic left opposition; and a more cosmetic but no less trustworthy right which probably wishes to overturn many of the social accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution, the wider region awaits the outcome of Sunday’s vote with nervous anticipation. It is here, in the foreign policy arena, where the political ripple effects of a Chavez loss might lead to even greater consequences for the left and a profound recalibration of power relations.

Perhaps the most important link to consider here is Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba, since it is difficult to imagine that Capriles would pursue such ties with the same ardour as Chavez. In a previous Al Jazeera column, I discussed WikiLeaks cables relating to the so-called “Barrio Adentro” programme which brought Cuban doctors to Venezuela. Under the programme, which was initiated in 2003, Cuban medical personnel have been deployed to poor Venezuelan neighbourhoods. In exchange, Chavez provides much needed discounted oil to the Communist island nation.

Whatever its many flaws, and WikiLeaks cables go into considerable depth on this score, the Barrio Adentro programme should be continued and improved, not shelved. Initially, Capriles remarked that he did not oppose Barrio Adentro, but recently the candidate said that he would review the presence of tens of thousands of Cuban workers in Venezuela in the event that he was elected. For Cuba, the political stakes could not be higher. Capriles has said that Venezuela shouldn’t “give away” its oil resources, and a Chavez loss could lead to greater political isolation for the island nation. 

Moreover, Cuba stands to potentially lose an important ally when it comes to security and intelligence. According to WikiLeaks cables, Chavez was apparently so taken with the Castro brothers that he consulted directly with Cuban intelligence officers without even bothering to vet the reporting through his own intelligence services. Meanwhile, the Cubans themselves trained and advised Chavez’s security detail. Furthermore, the Cubans openly trained Venezuelan intelligence officers in “both political indoctrination and operational instruction” and some Venezuelan military officers underwent “ideological training” in Cuba itself. The Americans were concerned not only about growing Cuban presence in the intelligence and diplomatic ranks, but also at Venezuelan ports.

The Brazil card

It is difficult to imagine that Capriles, should he win the election, would seek to continue Chavez’s hallmark ALBA alliances with the likes of Bolivia, Ecuador or Nicaragua. If Venezuela is no longer in the position to provide aid to impoverished nations in the vicinity or to throw around its oil largesse, this could create a big power vacuum throughout the region. In many ways Brazil is an ambivalent world power, but the South American giant is probably the most likely benefactor of an ALBA implosion.

 Venezuela’s Henrique Capriles talks to Al Jazeera

Already, it seems, Chavez’s influence in the wider region has reached its nadir: In Paraguay, for instance, a recent government shakeup cost Chavez dearly and led to a severe cutback in Venezuelan political influence. Publicly, Brazil is a Chavez ally though President Dilma Rousseff may not mourn reduced Bolivarian clout clout in Paraguay as Venezuela had recently taken to radicalising the local peasantry, which in turn had been agitating against Brazilian landowners (in other WikiLeaks cables, Brazilian officials are said to have little patience for Chavez, a leader of a medium-sized country who possesses overextended ambitions).

Interestingly enough, Capriles models himself after more moderate Brazilian-style politicians and has even hired his own Brazilian PR firm to improve his image on the campaign trail. In this sense, Capriles echoes other regional politicians such as Peruvian President Ollanta Humala who also hired a Brazilian team to handle his victorious campaign back in 2011. Since the election, Brazil has capitalised on Humala’s regional sympathies by extending its economic influence into Peru, much to the chagrin of Chavez.           

WikiLeaks and the Venezuelan election

Though WikiLeaks cables reveal the crass and opportunistic impulses of the Venezuelan opposition, the documents do not reflect positively upon the Chavez coalition, either. Even more problematically, the left has not been able to move beyond populist-style politics in Venezuela and some progressive elements are particularly untrustworthy. WikiLeaks cables leave us with the unmistakable impression that, even if Chavez should win the election, his populist model may not be so viable in the long-term. For better or worse, the ALBA bloc’s days may be numbered, and Brazil’s rise is probably unstoppable. As Venezuela fades, Washington may look upon Brazil as a more serious strategic rival in the hemisphere.   

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet.

Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff