Foreign and Defense Policy, Latin America

Waterloo for Lt. Col. Chavez?

chavez-dignifiedVenezuela’s democratic opposition leaders say that they have scored a stunning victory in yesterday’s national assembly elections, with their slate of candidates winning a slight majority of the popular votes cast. Because Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez rigged the rules, the opposition’s majority vote would translate into only about 64 of the 165 assembly seats. But that would leave Chavez with no more than 101 seats—less than the super-majority he needs to force through major reforms.

Now comes the crucial test for the opposition, as they mobilize to demand an honest count and “fair” apportionment of the assembly.

Last night’s results left the bombastic Chavez speechless. He skipped his traditional post-election rally from the presidential palace’s “Balcony of the People” because he literally had nothing to say. His handlers gave him draft remarks for four possible scenarios, but none of them anticipated the major defeat in which Chavez failed to win the two-thirds majority.

Chavez is a master of bouncing back from defeat. No doubt, he is huddling with advisors now, deciding whether to risk a showdown by denying the opposition the symbolic majority in the popular vote or by claiming to have won the requisite 110 seats that will allow him to maintain a rubberstamp legislature. The first test will be whether he can bully his cadre of key supporters to back him in such a provocative course. If so, he will have no trouble rallying his supporters to the streets to try to impose phony results. However, they will be met by an ascendant and emboldened opposition that can credibly claim, “We are the majority.”

Chavez may decide that the wiser course of action is to fudge the popular vote count, stealing a narrow majority for his slate of candidates but acknowledging that he has failed to win the two-thirds of the assembly. There is precedent for this sort of response. In the case of recent electoral setbacks, Chavez stole sufficient votes to give himself a “moral victory” and to claim that he is a “democrat.” Then, he recovers by denying his opponents any effective power. For example, in 2008, after conceding the loss of the mayor’s office in Caracas and several key governorships, Chavez proceeded to strip those posts of all resources and power.

What’s an electoral toss-up in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela? Tails, he wins; heads, you lose.

Moreover, months ago, Chavez laid the legal groundwork for moving more power to “communal councils,” giving him the option of bleeding power from a troublesome national assembly under the guise of empowering the masses.

However, there is no denying that the “Movement for Democratic Unity” has won a significant political victory that only a few enthusiastic backers might have predicted weeks ago. By refusing to boycott the process, the movement’ s leaders put their faith in the Venezuelan people ahead of their fears about Chavez’s electoral shenanigans. And, by proposing a unified national slate of candidates, they denied Chavez the opportunity to split the opposition vote.

Of course, by renewing some confidence in the electoral process, the democratic opposition has raised the stakes for Chavez in the upcoming 2012 presidential votes. One can hope that the opposition will stay unified as he pulls out all the stops to win reelection.

Although U.S. policy makers will take some solace that the opposition has flourished despite being abandoned by Washington, an electoral setback for Chavez does not necessarily spell instant relief for our security interests. Wishful thinking might suggest that Chavez’s trouble at home might clip his wings and force him to retreat from his international adventurism. However, it is just as likely that he will be forced to solidify his ties to the ruthless regimes in Iran, Cuba, China, and Russia that specialize in holding on to power.

At the very least, the U.S. national security establishment must pay greater attention to these growing, troubling relationships and begin to fashion an effective strategy for defending our interests. That is a process that U.S. foreign policy makers can no longer boycott.

Image by Bernardo Londoy.

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