A prediction by US intelligence chief James Clapper that chavista candidate Nicolas Maduro will likely win Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela is so simplistic that it is misleading. “[W]ith a comfortable lead in the polls, Maduro is expected to win, and he will probably continue in [his late predecessor, Hugo] Chavez’s tradition,” Clapper said in the final paragraph of his written testimony before congressional intelligence committees on Thursday. With that sort of superficial analysis, it is no surprise that Washington has no influence over whether a hostile narcostate and best friend of Iran and Hezbollah holds on to power in Venezuela.
Here is what US policymakers and Congress should know about the April 14 presidential election in Venezuela:
- Chávez’s anointed successor will not secure an uncontested mandate over his democratic opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, and this contested election will trigger a period of instability and uncertainty for the ruling party.
- The chavista political machine will have to perform flawlessly to fabricate a numeric victory for the regime, and, if the results are close, they will provoke the opposition to reject the unfair process and expose Maduro’s weakness to his enemies within the ruling party.
- The one thing the five-week campaign has proven is that Maduro does not have the intelligence or political weight of his predecessor to handle an opposition that is emboldened, an economy that is collapsing, and a ruling party that is bitterly divided.
As I noted after Chávez’s death last month, Venezuela is a country on the verge of a socioeconomic meltdown. Street crime, power outages, and shortages of food and consumer goods trouble the lives of millions of citizens. The government is running a dangerous fiscal deficit; mismanaged social programs are unsustainable. State revenues are down dramatically because the state-run oil company – packed with political cronies and plundered by Chávez to fund pet projects – is producing far less oil than it was 15 years ago. The regime has forfeited its legitimacy as senior officials are complicit with drug trafficking and terrorism. And the shameless intervention of Havana to manage the chavista succession has stirred anger among nationalists in Venezuela’s once-proud military. Confronting these challenges without Chávez at the top of the ticket, the regime has exploited every unfair advantage to engineer a convincing victory.
Although the chavista leadership has closed ranks around Maduro, their confidence has to have been shaken by his buffoonish performance – claiming to chat with Chávez through a little bird circling over his head, for instance, or clumsily mimicking the antics of his charismatic predecessor. Even if the chavistas decide to steal an electoral victory for Maduro, after the election, the narcogenerals led by National Assembly president and ruling party chief Diosdado Cabello will second-guess Maduro as he tries to run the country. Cabello considers himself a much more able administrator, and he has a bitter distrust of the Cubans who appear to be micromanaging Maduro and his campaign.
The involvement of Cabello and dozens of other senior security officials in narcotrafficking is a well-known fact to US law enforcement officials; this involvement undermines the legitimacy of any future chavista government. Cabello is well aware of the fact that, when Cuban involvement in cocaine smuggling was discovered in the late 1980’s, the Castro brothers orchestrated show-trials to pin the crimes on a half-dozen security officials who ended up before firing squads. It is unlikely that Cabello and his cadre will place their lives in the hands of Maduro or his Cuban managers.
The democratic opposition is enthusiastic about its chances on Sunday. Capriles Radonski has motivated his base, and he hopes for a groundswell of voters who see this election as the last chance to save their country from economically ruinous and politically authoritarian policies. If the opposition turns out in unprecedented numbers, they might overwhelm the ability of the chavista machine to produce an unassailable margin and force the regime to resort to outright, detectable fraud.
If unrest does result, it should be remembered that the regime and its supporters have a virtual monopoly on guns and violence, which they have deployed on repeated occasions. So if there is electoral violence, the chavista regime should be singled out for unprecedented criticism from foreign capitals.
For 15 years, Hugo Chávez used elections as a means to claim legitimacy and a popular mandate for his radical, revolutionary agenda. Like Chávez, those days are gone. Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela will leave many questions unanswered about the fate of a polarized and bankrupt country that is desperate for decent and competent leadership.