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The Venezuelan elections
Posted By Staff Writer On September 21, 2012 @ 5:01 am In Editorial | No Comments
The Venezuelan elections on October 7 may well prove to be the most momentous in Venezuela’s recent history, with hugely important implications for the Latin American and Caribbean region as well. The outcome, however, is clouded in uncertainty.
President Hugo Chávez, ailing until a few months ago and still not very active, seems to have lost none of his bombast as he campaigns for his third six-year term, to perpetuate his “Bolivarian” state and vision of “21st century socialism.” Mr Chávez is claiming a 15-20 point led in the polls.
Henrique Capriles, the pro-business, former governor of Miranda state, behind whom the opposition parties have united, has been criss-crossing the country trying to eat away at the incumbent’s populist appeal. He and his supporters claim the advantage in the polls.
Most polls actually show the two men in a very close race. Some give Mr Chávez the lead, some give Mr Capriles the edge, although it might be said that many of the pollsters would appear to betray their own political leanings. Generally, it seems that Mr Capriles has been gaining ground since a riot by armed inmates at a prison left 25 people dead and a massive explosion at the country’s largest oil refinery killed more than 40 people. In both cases, the government has been accused of criminal negligence, but it is not clear just how much the tragedies will hurt Mr Chávez.
What is evident, however, is that Mr Chávez does not expect to lose and even if the unthinkable happens, his rhetoric does raise the possibility that he may not be prepared to concede, despite the fact that at an earlier stage in the campaign he denied that he would not do so if he lost. The Venezuelan Constitution does not allow for the politicisation of the Armed Forces but this has not deterred either the president or some of his generals from asserting an overtly political role for the military in defence of Mr Chávez’s ‘revolution.’ It is a profoundly worrying situation, as it raises fears that, were Mr Chávez to lose the election, he and his followers might be emboldened by the support of the army to refuse to bow to the will of the people.
As if the prospect of civil strife and instability in Venezuela were not bad enough, some regional governments may also be seriously worried about a victory for Mr Capriles. Although he is a member of the centre-right Justice First party, Mr Capriles says that he favours former Brazilian President Lula’s mix of market-friendly economic policies aimed at attracting private investment to create jobs and intends to roll back Mr Chávez’s seizure of private businesses, though he has voiced support for some of his opponent’s social programmes and has declared a commitment to income redistribution.
Mr Capriles has also said that he would review all international deals signed by the Chávez government. He has stated that he would end discounted oil shipments of almost 100,000 barrels a day to Cuba and scrap PetroCaribe, the oil preference system that benefits 12 Caricom countries, including Guyana, in order to put money into social programmes for Venezuela’s poor. And Mr Chávez’s flagship Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which has three members and two observers from Caricom, would also most certainly be terminated. In Jamaica especially, there has been considerable public hand-wringing, as that country imports as much as two-thirds of its crude oil from Venezuela and it is estimated that Jamaica’s balance of payments would take a hit of some US$600 million. The Jamaican government is reportedly keeping a close watch on the elections in Venezuela, with Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell going so far as to say that he hopes that Mr Chávez is re-elected. Presumably, the other Caricom PetroCaribe beneficiaries feel the same way.
There are other concerns for Guyana and Caricom. Elements of the Venezuelan opposition have been assailing Mr Chávez for being soft on Guyana with regard to the Essequibo border controversy and Guyana’s submission to the UN to extend the country’s continental shelf by a further 150 nautical miles. They accuse Mr Chávez of subordinating Venezuela’s “sovereignty over Essequibo” and its territorial interests in the Caribbean stemming from its occupation of Bird Island to his petrodollar-fuelled foreign policy that effectively ignores the permanent interests of Venezuela. A win for Mr Capriles might therefore suggest a rather more hawkish line by Caracas in advancing Venezuela’s territorial claims.
In this context, the self-interest of Guyana and most of Caricom in wishing for a continuation of the status quo in Venezuela is understandable. Perhaps, even as Mr Paulwell in Jamaica hopes for the best, his government is preparing for the worst. One fervently hopes, however, that, absent any information in the public domain, regional governments, particularly our own, have contingency plans for a new diplomatic strategy in the event of a Capriles victory.
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