Rocky road to Venezuela presidential elections

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, winner of elections in 2000 and 2006 by overwhelming majorities, is heavily favored in voting set for October 7. Opinion surveys on both sides put him 10 to 15 percentage points ahead of Henrique Capriles Radonski, candidate for the Democratic Unity Roundtable, a right-wing coalition. Chavez has campaigned vigorously, despite having been treated for cancer beginning in 2011. He heads the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Popular support for Chavez stems from his health, housing, and educational initiatives known as social missions. Unemployment is a relatively low seven percent, and poverty has fallen 50 percent since 1998 when Chavez took office.

A vigorous capitalist economy remains, however, and wealthy business impresarios, financiers, and landowners, who control the mass media, are in fighting fettle. And their foreign allies have been ready and waiting. Not only does Venezuela command immense oil reserves, but Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution" is making good on dreams of Latin American and Caribbean unity.

U.S. continent-wide domination going back to the Monroe Doctrine is no longer taken for granted. That's reason enough for U.S. preoccupation with the elections, according to Germán Mundaraín Hernández, Venezuela's United Nations ambassador in Geneva. In a recent interview, he explained, "The election not only will decide Venezuela's future but also that of Latin America." He cited new regional alliances that would be "liquidated" should the opposition triumph and Venezuela's leadership be removed.

Once more, Chavez' enemies are looking for ways other than elections to rid themselves of a social and political movement they see as threatening to privileges and power. Thus a few military units joined media owners in April 2002 to stage a short-lived coup, backed by the U.S. government. Again in 2006, pre-election violent incidents cropped up prompting speculation at the time that chaos was on the way, and U.S. intervention.

The prevailing story this time is that Chavez' expected victory will be illegitimate because of election fraud. The subtext is that popular uprisings and turmoil will follow. Dominant media in Europe, and especially Spain, have sounded such themes, joined by corporate news outlets in South America. The extreme right=wing Argentinean PRO party headed by businessman Mauricio Macri has sent operatives to Venezuela.

U.S. officialdom may be taking the lead. A few weeks ago, ex-U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy offered the Council of Foreign Relations a possible action plan in case the elections are fraudulent or Chavez is defeated. He envisioned a violent transition period requiring U.S. assistance. Allegations that Duddy helped plan an anti-Chavez coup prompted his expulsion from Venezuela in 2008.

Pro-Chavez observers say the United States has taken steps prior to the vote, among them:

- Intelligence officer Richard Nazario returned to Caracas. The former military attaché in the U.S. Embassy is accused of involvement in the 2002 coup.

- The U.S. Embassy is replenishing stores of food, water, towels, toothpaste, pillows, and more, as supposedly happened prior to the 2002 coup.

- Embassy officials have secured armored vehicles presumably for safe movement amidst expected disorder.

- Embassy neighbors are said to have reported opposition leaders heading inside for meetings there. The State Department in July sent representatives to meet with anti-Chavez political leaders, and Embassy press personnel made the rounds with opposition media figures.

Yet election cheating is probably unlikely if Carter Center opinion means anything. Ex-President Jimmy Carter, the organization's founder, recently said: "Of the 92 elections we've monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world." By contrast, he stated, the United States has "one of the worst election processes in the world, and it's almost entirely because of the excessive influx of money."

In addition, hundreds of other officially invited international observers will be in place nationwide to monitor voting on October 7.

Photo: Flickr

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