Hugo Chavez faces the first democratic threat to his near 14-year presidency on Sunday when Venezuelans go to the polls to elect the country´s leader for the next six years.
The campaign finished last night and polls show Henrique Capriles the opposition candidate is neck and neck with Chavez. Who should Colombians hope wins?
For Venezuelans this is the most important election in a generation and they must decide between Capriles who is expected to govern as a moderate, center, center-left government or Chavez who promises to continue to deepen his 21st century socialist revolution.
The country is polarized between two distinct visions of the future and tensions threaten to boil over if the vote is as close as predicted. Chavez has even warned that there could be a civil war if he doesn´t win.
Fraud is probable, and Chavez has already grossly abused his power and the national government budget to try to rig the vote in his favor. The campaign has been about as asymmetrical as a war as can get.
So who should Colombians hope for?
The answer is not as obvious as you might think.
Objectively most Colombians would almost certainly vote for Capriles. Chavez is adjudged to have been complicit in the terrorism of the FARC and ideologically Colombians don’t much care for the far-left posturing of the Bolivarian “comandante.” The idea of a socialist revolution on the streets of Cali, Medellin or Bogota is virtually impossible to countenance.
Colombia is a right wing country. In fact Capriles would be too left wing for most.
But putting personal preferences aside, would a Capriles win be better for Colombia?
In the medium and long term almost certainly yes. Chavez’s economic model is sustainable for a few more years — on current oil prices — after which the country is almost certain to go bust if it stays on the same trajectory. And Chavez’ political allegiances with other Latin American socialists are not in the interests of the block of South American nations more liberal and free-market in their thinking.
The pacts signed between Colombia, Chile and Peru (despite its having a socialist president in Ollanta Humala) no only bolster trade, but also act as a buffer to the Chavista cabal in Ecuador, Argentina, and Bolivia.
In the long term too, the authoritarianism of the Chavez regime has the potential to inflate potential conflicts, like that of 2010 when the two neighbors almost came to blows as Colombia’s former President Alvaro Uribe accused his Venezuelan counterpart of safeguarding FARC guerrillas across the border.
However, should Chavez lose there is a real possibility of violence. Chavez´s “guardians” and the revolutionary forces that control certain barrios in the country´s main cities seem unlikely to watch quietly as the political light of their caudillo is extinguished.
This threat is something the president has played up. Not only has he warned of a civil war but his campaign posters warn “Sin Chavez, plomo, con Chavez, todo.” In other words, without Chavez the bullet, and bloodshed.
If Venezuela plunges into chaos this will not only be a tragedy for the country itself, it could also destabilize the region as a whole.
There is another consideration — the peace talks. Chavez has undoubtedly become a useful figure for President Santos, a conduit and a moderator for the FARC. Chavez has facilitated these talks — and whilst it is not to say that they have less chance of being successful under Capriles, it is true that a new government could change the dynamic just when Colombia needs a steady ship.
Despite these threats, however, it must be the case that if not directly for the sake of Colombia, but for the sake of democracy, Chavez must go.
If Chavez wins – and he continues to survive his cancer – then he will, by the time of the next elections, have been in power for two decades. Even were he an incorruptibly democratic leader this would be unhealthy.
There are rumors that Chavez has closed consulates abroad and cancelled inbound Caracas flights to prevent Venezuelans overseas from voting (Capriles is overwhelmingly the choice for expats).
And of course there are the usual suggestions circulate of public workers being forced to vote for Chavez and other votes being bought.
The truth of these assertions will always be contested.
What is irrefutable however, is that the national electoral commission has refused to permit international observers to oversee the vote on Sunday.
Colombia Politics does not enjoy taking sides, it is not a campaign vehicle for one party over the other. However, our editorial line will always be to champion democracy.
For these reason alone, even it is unclear what the future holds, Colombian democrats must hope that Venezuela awakes on Monday morning with a new president — and, however unlikely, that Chavez respects the result.