On Sunday, October 7, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez Frias won yet another electoral victory, placing him solidly on the path towards claiming two decades of consecutive rule over Venezuela. With 29 days left until the U.S. presidential election, the Chavez victory will likely go overlooked by the majority of Americans, however his close defeat of opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski means important things for Venezuela as a country and for the Americas region.
The victory marks what will begin in January as the fourth, six-year, presidential term for Chavez, who has never shied away from expressing his preference for indefinite term rule. The recent election is a solid example of how Chavez has managed to keep a hold on the presidency despite the skyrocketing rate of violence within Venezuela, declared by the U.S. State Department to be of the “top five most violent in the world.” Additionally, he has been able to deflect or distract from allegations that his administration has turned Venezuela into a sanctuary for FARC narco-terrorists. Buoyed by the cost of oil, the Chavez regime has also seemingly been able to gloss over his seizure and nationalization of over 1,000 companies, by heavily subsidizing the cost of living (food, housing, health care) within Venezuela. A Chavez victory will likely see more of the same in all categories, regardless of any campaign rhetoric promising a new and improved Venezuela.
Pundits, however, have noted that the recent election changed the political landscape in Venezuela. This election, while generally expected to go to Chavez, saw his slimmest victory since his initial run in 1998, an indicator that at least a substantial percentage of Venezuelans are no longer willing to live on the promise of the Bolivarian Revolution alone. The opposition under Capriles has shown itself to be organized, well-funded, focused and resilient, a shift that could mean more instability as challengers stand strong against Chavistas in upcoming local and state elections. Overall, general stability is likely to suffer as the well-oiled Chavista machine attempts to uproot the newly entrenched detractors from Venezuela's mainstream political fabric.
Chavez has been a polarizing figure across the Americas since his ascension from the military into politics. His victory at the polls will grant him another six years to forge a greater divide between ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) countries such as Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia and nations like Colombia and Peru who support U.S. strategic goals in the region. The increasing rates of impunity and corruption in Venezuela make it prime real estate for transnational criminal groups seeking to claim territory adjacent to Colombia’s cocaine production. Venezuela's inability to gail transparent control over its ungoverned spaces has created significant friction with those countries, like Colombia, actively working to dismantle regional drug trafficking organizations. The rhetoric and policies out of Venezuela have also fractured regional cohesion and strained diplomatic efforts. With countries like Argentina seemingly open to embracing the Chavez model, the region is poised to see even greater ideological conflict over his next six-year term.
In terms of the U.S., most Americans, if they think of Venezuela at all, flash back to Chavez’s incendiary speech at the 2006 UN General Assembly, where he called former President George W. Bush “the devil” and declared the United States to be a threat to “the survival of the human species.” The Chavez administration, well-known for its contentious anti-U.S. stance, has further isolated itself from Washington by challenging the participation of the U.S. within bodies like the Organization of American States (OAS) and flamboyantly demonstrating Venezuela’s allegiance with nations such as Iran and Cuba. However, the Chavez regime poses little direct threat to the U.S., regardless of the sketchy flight schedule between Tehran and Caracas, and the tracksuit solidarity with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. In truth, the real danger Venezuela poses to the U.S. is in its inability to prevent its own domestic issues from becoming a larger destabilizing force in the region.