Win or Lose, Chavez’s Time Is Ending

Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- On Oct. 7, voters in Venezuela will decide whether Hugo Chavez will remain as president or be replaced by his challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski. Given how close the contest is and how high the passions on both sides, however, the outcome will probably bring controversy -- if not outright civil disturbance or violence.

Naturally, any time the country with the largest proven oil reserves goes to the polls, the whole world should pay attention. Yet if the vote is contested or subverted, there will be little that powers outside the region can do. That goes double for the U.S., which still bears the mark of Cain in the eyes of many Latin Americans. The burden will fall to Latin America’s democracies, beginning with neighboring Brazil. And the U.S. will have to exert whatever influence it has through them.

Chavez, who has been in office for 13 years, is using the many official tools at his disposal to assure his fourth electoral win. His pre-election spending spree on things like houses for the poor, subsidized goods at “socialist” supermarkets and a cross-country railroad have reduced Venezuela’s international reserves to near their lowest level in five years. “Chain broadcasts” of the president on state-controlled television and radio have crowded out coverage of Capriles’s campaign.

Supporters Killed

The supposedly impartial National Electoral Council, which is dominated by Chavez supporters, has done everything from trying to stop Capriles from wearing a baseball cap with the national colors to misprinting his photo on ballots. For months, the Venezuelan consulate in Miami, home to many pro-Capriles expatriates, has been closed, forcing voters to travel to New Orleans to cast their ballots. More ominously, bands of “Chavistas” have disrupted and attacked Capriles rallies; last weekend, in the president’s home state of Barinas, three Capriles supporters were killed after an altercation with Chavez backers.

This blanket of “soft authoritarianism” has nevertheless failed to smother Capriles, who has barnstormed through 260 communities in the past eight months, kept his message positive and forward-looking, pledged continuity with Chavez’s pro-poor policies and avoided any hint of violence. Under Capriles’s leadership, Venezuela’s opposition seems determined to avoid past mistakes, such as its disastrous decision in 2005 to boycott parliamentary elections. Remarkably, some polls suggest it is likely to win.

Unfortunately, if Capriles and his Coalition for Democratic Unity do prevail, and Chavez’s supporters protest the result -- or if Capriles loses by a narrow margin and does the same -- Venezuela’s institutions are ill-equipped to arbitrate or intervene in an even-handed manner. Chavez has packed the Supreme Court with justices who have proclaimed their commitment to his agenda; the military is also deeply politicized.

In the event that democracy is indeed denied, one of the 34 other members of the Organization of American States could call for an outside intervention under the Inter-American Democratic Charter -- the same charter that was quickly invoked, though shamefully not by the U.S., to protest Chavez’s removal in a short-lived 2002 coup. As Chavez mocks the OAS as a U.S. tool, and regularly uses anti-Americanism to whip up public support, such an intervention would be ineffectual.

That leaves Venezuela’s democratic neighbors as the primary forces for good. Even though Brazil and Colombia can’t afford to alienate their erratic neighbor (with whom they have important economic ties, among other things), they are not without influence. (Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos deserves credit for giving Capriles a warm reception last month.) The U.S. has relatively good relations with both countries, and should strengthen them.

Better Relations

It should also bolster relations with other influential Latin democracies such as Mexico and Chile. Joint initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, a pro-democracy group whose founding members included the U.S., Mexico and Brazil, can help to encourage transparency and accountability throughout the region.

For the moment, the big money is betting on a narrow Chavez victory. Still, any triumph may be short-lived. Chavez is dogged by an unspecified cancer, and his health status remains unclear. If he dies before the first four years of his six-year term are up, new elections would have to be called within 30 days. Although no clear successor has risen from the Chavez camp, Capriles would emerge from any close loss with his reputation enhanced and his alliance fortified for gubernatorial elections in December and municipal elections in April.

To be sure, Chavez’s government has lifted millions of Venezuelans from poverty and reduced inequality.

At the same time, despite the country’s enormous pool of oil, Chavez’s policies have led to one of the world’s highest inflation rates, growing debt, the highest borrowing costs among emerging-market countries and widespread shortages of milk, meat, toilet paper and other consumer staples. Companies whose assets have been nationalized have filed billions of dollars’ worth of compensation claims. Crime has become epidemic (the murder rate tripled last year to 67 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in Latin America). And a recent series of deadly accidents at the state oil company have highlighted poor maintenance and mismanagement -- not to mention falling production.

That’s a record that’s easy to run against, and sooner rather than later it will catch up to President Chavez.

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