Venezuelans go to the polls this Sunday in what is shaping up to be the strongest challenge yet to the 14-year reign of President Hugo Chavez. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, a former governor, has exceeded all expectations by running an energetic, focused campaign and has remained undaunted against Mr. Chavez’s overwhelming advantages and dirty tricks to make it a close race to the finish.
As Mr. Capriles’ candidacy has surged, though, so too have concerns that an ailing Mr. Chavez may turn to violence if he sees his political fortunes going south on election day.
Mr. Chavez himself began stoking those fears in public speeches by referring to “civil war” if he loses the election. Ordinarily, it would be easy to dismiss such rhetoric as typical Chavez bombast, if not for recent reports indicating there may be more to it.
For example, in a recent 2,400-word expose, Reuters news service reported on the radical (and armed) neighborhood groups — known as “colectivos” — that are fervently pro-Chavez and outwardly committed to defending his political project. They are unaccountable to any authority and frequently act with impunity.
“In the eyes of critics, the groups are bandana-clad killers and vigilantes, the shock troops of the president’s self-styled revolution,” Reuters reported. “They have become more high-profile in the last four years, and some have been blamed for attacks on people they are said to perceive as enemies of Chavez. With a presidential election looming on Oct. 7, opposition members fear the colectivos will turn to violence if challenger Henrique Capriles defies the polls and wins.”
Moreover, in a second recent report, the Spanish newspaper ABC ran a front-page story based on internal government documents revealing plans for even more select units of civilian “rapid mobilization networks” said to be modeled after the Iranian basij units that helped smother the “Green Revolution” in 2009, to be deployed on election day. According to ABC, these specially trained units — expressly civilian to give the government plausible deniability in the event of lethal action — are tasked with “aborting opposition rallies before these can take shape, ‘detection of opposition leaders, organization of street protests and resistance, and territorial control.’”
Venezuelan civil society leaders have been sufficiently alarmed by these reports to send a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week apprising him of growing tensions in the country because of Mr. Chavez’s inflammatory rhetoric and their fears that he is not bluffing. It also requested that member states express their concerns to the Chavez government and be vigilant that their election comports with international standards.
The positive news in this otherwise troubling scenario is that the Venezuelan military (traditionally in charge of security on election day) has demonstrated that it will defend the integrity of the Venezuelan vote, as it did in 2007 when it forced Mr. Chavez to concede he lost a constitutional reform referendum as students massed in the streets.
Indeed, the chief of the strategic operational command for election day, Wilmer Barrientos, recently assured, “We are preparing with the utmost awareness, with much professionalism and patriotic duty to ensure that the whole process culminates in parameters of law and safety, and the less stressful possible.” Mr. Barrientos reiterated this commitment after the cold-blooded killings of three Capriles supporters Saturday — an encouraging sign in an otherwise tragic event.
But Venezuela’s neighbors and the U.S. government also have a responsibility to make it clear to the Chavez government — publicly or privately — that election-day violence is completely unacceptable and would spark a regionwide crisis. If he thinks he is losing the vote, Mr. Chavez may have delusions about bringing the temple down all around him. It is up to patriotic Venezuelans and countries around the region to ensure that he doesn’t and to see that the democratic will of Venezuelans is upheld.
Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.