With so much blanket media coverage being provided to the presidential debates in the U.S., it is easy to lose sight of other important international events. On Sunday, voters will go to the polls in Venezuela to decide the fate of Hugo Chavez's so-called Bolivarian Revolution which has been 14 years in the making. Though the maverick Venezuelan politician has survived many political challenges in the past, and even seems to have overcome his battle with cancer for the time being, Chavez faces a formidable challenger in the form of Henrique Capriles Randonski.
While polling in the U.S. is oftentimes conducted on a partisan basis, most results or findings tend to fall within roughly the same range. In Venezuela, by contrast, the surveys have been all over the map. My guess is that Hugo Chávez will ultimately prevail in his nation's presidential election, but with such wild and volatile data it's still anyone's guess as to what might happen. If the race is close, Venezuela could descend into political destabilization or even chaos, which is surely a worrying prospect. Already, passions are running high with Capriles supporters accusing the Chávez camp of shooting and killing three of their own in pre-election violence within the provincial state of Barinas. Chávez meanwhile has been employing inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric, thereby fanning class tensions --- recently, he warned the upper classes that they should vote for him or risk a civil war. How would the armed forces react in the event of a contested election? Senior commanders say they will respect the result and stay in the barracks, though one must also consider the growing role and importance of the Chávez civilian militias. As if that were not enough, the left Venezuelan press has been charging that U.S. and other diplomats from conservative Latin American countries have been meeting with the opposition to chart contingency plans and street demonstrations in the event of a disputed electoral result. It's difficult to ascertain the veracity of such claims, but in light of the actual history as well as documentary evidence contained in the WikiLeaks cables, such alliances wouldn't come as any great surprise.
So, what are the real issues in this campaign? To be sure, crime and homicide continues to confront millions of Venezuelans, who can't even go out at night for fear of risking their lives. A lot of the violence and kidnapping can be attributed to policemen who receive a pittance in salary. When asked if he would beef up security by hiring more policemen, Chávez pooh poohed the entire notion, remarking that such a strategy responded to a mere right wing ethos. Personally, I am a bit mixed on this question. While I'm hardly a fan of what one might call the national security state or a draconian crackdown on crime, Venezuelans surely have the right to live in peace and security and I would imagine that Chávez's remarks did not go over very well amongst many of the poor, let alone the middle or upper classes.
Beyond the issue of crime, there are now some underlying questions about the future social/economic trajectory of this presidential race. Officially, Capriles is a social moderate and advocates Brazilian-style development. That's a shrewd strategy, since Venezuelan politics tends to skew to the left and the Chávez opposition ran into a lot of problems in the past when it was perceived as too fanatically right wing. Capriles says he supports Chávez-style "mission" programs directed at the poor, but would administer the aid more efficiently. The opposition candidate has some street credibility on this score, having previously conducted a zero hunger program while serving as Governor of the important provincial state of Miranda.
Nevertheless, a recent scandal has led to questions about Capriles' true aims (for a longer discussion of the scandal, listen to my interview yesterday in al-Jazeera English. To see the conversation, click here.) Recently, an opposition document was leaked to the press which suggested that Chávez's challenger has a stealth program to impose right wing "neo-liberal" style economics in Venezuela. According to this article in New Internationalist magazine, Capriles has developed a so-called "paquetazo" or "big package" which would gut social spending. For example, the politician would reduce food subsidies and target the so-called Mercals or government-owned supermarkets providing cheap food to the neediest. What is more, Capriles would prohibit free metro service to the disabled which would go against current norms.
The scandal caused political fissures within Capriles' own coalition, with three parties leaving in protest over the revelations. Another opposition politician, William Ojeda, publicly expressed his displeasure with the neo-liberal agenda and was promptly fired from the campaign for daring to express his own views. Capriles meanwhile dismisses the entire scandal as a Chávez smokescreen, charging that the documents are bogus and were deliberately planted by the government itself. During a campaign stop, the charismatic Capriles remarked to swooning crowds of female admirers that he would not respond to Chávez accusations but women could easily recognize the contours of a "true package" [it's interesting to speculate how such politically incorrect humor would play in other countries outside of Venezuela].
It's unclear who holds the truth on the neo-liberal controversy, but if Capriles really has an ulterior agenda then this truly represents a tectonic development in the campaign. Would Capriles dare to enact such far reaching reforms if elected President, much as Scott Walker tried in Wisconsin? Somehow, I have my doubts: as stated earlier, Venezuelan politics skews to the left and few wish to return to the kinds of economic austerity measures which sparked widespread political instability and urban riots back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One thing is clear, however: if Capriles does harbor secret plans, he'll have a tough time enacting them. Indeed, many Venezuelans have benefited from government social programs and have undergone a profound psychological shift. Having been radicalized during the Chávez years, the poor would probably mobilize to block any radical right wing social engineering.
On foreign policy, the differences between Capriles and Chávez are even more pronounced. Indeed, if the opposition scores an electoral upset this will represent a huge political blow to the entire populist left bloc in Latin America and no doubt many in Havana, Managua and Quito are already eyeing the Venezuelan election nervously. Capriles has said he would "review" Chávez's hallmark exchange policies with Cuba which have brought tens of thousands of doctors to Venezuela to attend to the poor. Whatever its flaws (and there are many, as I have discussed elsewhere), the so-called Barrio Adentro program has represented a net gain to millions of marginalized people living in impoverished neighborhoods, and Capriles' position on this score represents a step back. What is more, it is easy to imagine that Chávez's challenger would move to dramatically scale back relations with Cuba, since he himself has been accused of inciting a riotous crowd which menaced the Cuban Embassy in Caracas back in 2002.
On the other hand, while it pains me to say it, Capriles could represent an improvement over the present government in certain respects. Over the years, Chávez has chosen to ally himself with some very questionable and politically backward regimes, for example Belarus, known as "Europe's last dictatorship." Capriles by contrast would reconsider ties to Belarus, Iran and Russia.
Such moves would certainly ingratiate Capriles in Washington, and it is not a stretch to imagine that U.S.-Venezuelan relations might recover from their long thaw under Chávez. If that were to occur, it is also reasonable to assume that the ALBA bloc of left-leaning countries, which is largely reliant and dependent on Chávez's own oil largesse, could really implode and leave a political vacuum in its wake. The most likely beneficiary of such an implosion would likely be Brazil, a country which has begun to contest U.S. dominance in the wider region.
This week, most Americans are concentrating on the U.S. presidential debates but arguably there's a lot more on the line in the Venezuela election, which could exert a powerful ripple effect throughout the wider region. Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.