Venezuela’s Chávez stokes civil-war fears

As the Venezuelan presidential election on Oct. 7 draws closer, the anti-opposition rhetoric of Hugo Chávez is becoming more hysterical by the day.

Indeed, to listen to Chávez, you would never know that the man is suffering from cancer at an advanced stage. Even his closest supporters are deliberating on their next moves should the Comandante pass from this world. Yet none of this seeps through to the Venezuelan population for a simple reason: Chávez wants them to believe that he is like one of the gods of myth, an eternal survivor, to whom pesky human concerns like a debilitating disease do not apply.

Chávez’s latest rhetorical flourish has stoked the fear that an opposition victory will lead to civil war. It’s a step beyond the demonization of the popular opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, whom Chávez always refers to with the most foul language, and whose Jewish origins have been the subject of viciously anti-Semitic attacks.

In a radio appearance on Sept. 4, Chávez accused Capriles, a moderate, of concealing a “neoliberal packet of measures” in his election platform. Capriles, Chávez added,” seeks to drag us back to a Venezuela we wouldn’t put up with, and which would lead to a grim scenario of profound destabilization, and which might even bring us to a civil war.”

There is a method behind this fear-mongering. According to Luis Vicente León, the president of Datanálisis, a leading Venezuelan pollster, around 30 percent of voters — about 6 million in all — haven’t decided how to cast their ballots. And in the wake of the explosion in August at the Amuy oil refinery, in which more than 40 people lost their lives, the probing questions being asked about the regime’s chronic mismanagement is hardly doing Chávez any favors.

The head of the oil workers union, Jose Bodas, who two years ago warned that the regime’s practices were “putting at risk the lives and health of the workers,” has now called for an independent inquiry into the Amuy explosion, the biggest industrial disaster in Venezuela’s history, and demanded the resignation of Chávez’s energy minister, Rafael Ramirez.

Rather than answering Bodas directly, Chávez did what he has always done: he delivered a bombastic speech charging that an opposition victory, which the Amuay explosion has made a much more realistic prospect, is the equivalent of an apocalypse.

As another political analyst, Carmen Beatriz Fernandez, told a Venezuelan newspaper, “It’s something Chávez has done before, for example in the legislative elections of 2010. But now he’s doing it with greater force because he has realized that he is not as comfortably ahead in the opinion polls as before.” And that is certainly correct: one recent poll showed Capriles ahead of Chávez by a few points, while another poll revealed that Capriles enjoys a lead in seven out of the eight most populous states in Venezuela.

Will this Machiavellian strategy work in October? After 14 years of his rule, Venezuelans have wised up to Chávez’s mind-games. However, that arguably makes them more, not less, sensitive to the fear that anyone who votes for Capriles will be marked out as an enemy in the future. Moreover, given that Venezuela is already the murder capital of the world, with 50 homicides per 100,000 members of the population, the notion of a civil war conjures up all too realistic images of further bloodshed carried out by the armed gangs already terrorizing us, many of whom are closely allied with and supported by the regime.

Most important of all, Venezuelans know that Chávez can always take a leaf out of the book of his close friend, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and steal the election if the final result is not to his liking. The possibility of such an outcome has even been acknowledged by leaders elsewhere in Latin America who have traditionally been warm to the Chávez regime. Both the Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner and the Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff have counseled Chávez not to resist an opposition victory through undemocratic means.

I am skeptical that Chávez will heed this advice. He is a revolutionary of the old school, uncompromisingly ideological, and therefore contemptuous of any suggestions that might derail his “Bolivarian revolution.” Should Chávez succumb to his cancer, a number of his confidantes will seek to perpetuate what Venezuelans call “Chavismo after Chávez.”

The opposition has run an energetic, positive campaign, which has seen the youthful Capriles dashing from state to state on foot, talking to the voters directly. Still, the opposition knows too well that Chávez’s best, and deadliest, card is still up his sleeve; if manufacturing a bloody civil conflict is what it takes to keep him in power, he will try to do so. But in that situation, the armed forces will have the last word.

Diego Arria is a former Ambassador of Venezuela to the United Nations, and chief spokesman of freevenezuela.org, an international campaign to support the Venezuelan opposition.

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