When Patrick Duddy, the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, thinks about the ailing Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, he is reminded of the 1961 epic El Cid. In the climatic finish, a dead hero’s men, fearing they cannot defeat North African invaders without him, secure his corpse upon his horse, and send it onto the battlefield in order to intimidate their enemies. Sure enough, the dead El Cid’s Castillian army goes on to final victory.
With seven months to go until October presidential elections, Chávez returned to Caracas over the weekend after a second cancer operation in Havana. Chávez’s health has thrown the election into disarray, raising questions about what will happen not only in Venezuela should he be incapacitated, but in the country’s projection of influence around the region. Until 2008, Chávez, fueled by the income of some 2.5 million barrels of oil exports a day, provided hundreds of millions of dollars of support for Colombia’s hyper-violent rebel opposition FARC movement. Venezuela also was a key to cocaine smuggling. Meanwhile, Chávez has had a tense relationship with foreign oil companies during his 13 years of power, sometimes nationalizing their fields, or unilaterally changing contractual terms. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips left the country.
On arriving home, Chávez sang and danced with his daughter on a balcony, a demonstration of rigor intended to dispel talk that, despite chemotherapy he is to undergo, he is not up to the challenge of a tough campaign. “The beating we’re going to give the Venezuelan right will be memorable … not just in the history of Venezuela but in almost all the world,” Reuters quoted Chávez as telling the crowd.
Duddy is sure of only one thing: that, whether or not Chávez is healthy, he will in fact appear as the ruling candidate for president on October 7. There simply is no serious alternative in the chavista camp to face the popular opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski. And there is too much at stake in the way of power and wealth to leave victory to chance.
“I think they’re going to try to stick with Chávez to the very end,” Duddy told me. “And they think [they will triumph] through a combination of aggressive spending on the social program, incessant election publicity. They dominate the [broadcast media]. They have immense resources. They’re going to put those resources to use in the serve of the president’s campaign for re-election.”
The most recent public opinion polls show Chávez recovering from neck-and-neck surveys against Capriles Radonski in December. He is above 50 percent, and Capriles Radonski a little over 30 percent, with much of the remainder undecided. Yet all that could change back.
One hears a consensus that, although Chávez takes pride in enjoying such popularity, and has said that he will abide by the election result, he is not above running a violent campaign. Serious people around him, including his brother, Adan Chávez, governor of Marino state, have put out the alert that chavistas must be ready to defend the revolution by force of arms if necessary. “Respecting the election and defending the revolution by force of arms do not appear to be entirely compatible statements,” notes Duddy.
Tom O’Donnell, a professor at the New School in New York, said a primary question is what happens if Chávez senses impending loss, or if he actually is defeated. “The key is whether Chávez accepts,” O’Donnell told me. “If he starts saying that there has been a coup, there will be trouble.”
Trouble not just from thuggery—Chávez’ support base is extremely enthusiastic, and would believe his suspicions, O’Donnell suggests.
As a clue of what might be to come, listen to one of Chávez’ remarks over the weekend about the opposition, again quoted by Reuters: “They’re a minority but they have a lot of economic power, power in the media. And they have no scruples. … They’re dirty. They play dirty. They never play clean, they don’t know how.”
*This post originally appeared on Foreign Policy‘s “The Oil and the Glory” blog and is republished with permission from the author.
Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory, a history of oil told through the 1990s-2000s oil rush on the Caspian Sea. He is also an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, where he teaches energy and security in the Security Studies Program.