Just days before Venezuelans vote on whether to recall Hugo Chavez, U.S. officials and analysts appear increasingly resigned to at least another two and a half years of a government headed by the fiery populist.
They have watched Chavez surge in the polls in the past few weeks and, what with a leaderless opposition united only in its contempt for the president, they now see Fidel Castro’s biggest foreign admirer as likely to prevail, if not in the plebiscite itself, then in new elections that must take place within 30 days of the recall vote.
“He’s definitely got momentum on his side,” conceded one Bush administration official, who admitted that Washington is unlikely to be happy with the outcome.
In fact, some analysts here prefer a clear win by Chavez at this point, rather than a close finish that could provoke charges of fraud from either or both sides, particularly if observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center hedge their own assessment as to whether the election was free and fair.
The possibility of civil conflict breaking out in one of Washington’s most important and reliable sources of imported oil at a time when global oil prices are hovering around historic highs is a nightmare that George W. Bush’s political handlers would rather not face less than three months before the November elections here.
“The administration really doesn’t have any good options for bringing pressure to bear on Chavez at this point if he does win,” according to William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert at American University here. “The last thing it wants to do is alienate another big oil producer. If Chavez wins, they’re just going to have to grit their teeth and live with him.”
“If the oil is flowing and U.S. investors are happy, this administration isn’t going to do much,” Michael Shifter, a Venezuela expert at the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a prominent think tank here, told IPS. “What the U.S. wants above all else is stability.”
Sunday’s recall election marks the third attempt by a diverse and generally pro-Washington opposition to unseat Chavez, who was first elected on a tide of revulsion against the corruption of the two establishment parties that had dominated Venezuelan politics since the 1950s.
The first attempt took place in April 2002, when a business-dominated group attempted to grab control during an apparent barracks coup that was put down by loyal officers and demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of the urban poor who have long been Chavez’s most fervent supporters.
Public statements by U.S. officials in support of the government established by the coup-plotters, as well as a record of U.S. political and financial support for some opposition groups that supported the coup before it collapsed badly, embarrassed Washington and further aggravated already-strained relations between Chavez and the Bush administration.
A second attempt was mounted in December 2002, when management staff at the country’s sprawling Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) launched a prolonged strike that was eventually settled by an accord on the terms of the pending recall election. The agreement was mediated by the OAS and the Carter Center, whose assessment of the fairness of Sunday’s election will likely be the decisive factor in determining whether or not serious violence breaks out in the country and how the Bush administration will itself react.
“After it endorsed the 2002 coup, the administration was really burned and forced to back off and put all of its eggs in the OAS-Carter Center process,” said John Walsh, a Venezuela analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human-rights group.
“If the OAS and the Carter Center judge the process, warts and all, as clean enough to bestow legitimacy on Chavez, the U.S. is going to be very hard-pressed to take a different position, much less bring other countries in the hemisphere along with it,” he added.
To win, the opposition must not only get more “yes” than “no” votes in the plebiscite, but they must also get more votes than the roughly 3.8 million Chavez received in 2000. And even if the opposition gets over those two hurdles, most analysts here do not see anyone emerging from its ranks who can defeat him in a two-person race.
“The opposition hasn’t united around a single candidate or put forward a coherent platform that would likely be persuasive to someone who voted for Chavez,” according to Walsh.
The administration has little confidence in the opposition,” according to Shifter, “and frankly, they don’t inspire a lot of confidence.”
Chavez has benefited both from the opposition’s shortcomings and from the record oil prices. The latter “has given him the resources not only to reduce PDVSA’s outstanding debt, but also throw almost $2 billion in new resources into social programs for the poor,” according to Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).
“In recent years the poor had become more apolitical because they came to see Chavez as just one more leader who has deceived them, but now that he has put more resources into social and education programs and subsidized food markets, his natural constituency has returned to him,” said Birns, who has generally defended the Venezuelan leader against some of the more strident attacks mounted by the administration and right-wing critics here.
Those attacks, which have been featured prominently in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report, include reports that Cubans are working inside Venezuela’s paramilitary and intelligence apparatus; that the government is supporting left-wing guerrillas in Colombia and other nearby Andean countries; that it is creating a new “axis of evil in the Americas” with Cuba, Brazil and Argentina; and providing identity documents and refuge to Middle Eastern terrorist suspects.
Despite such alarms, some of which have been fostered by hardliners from within the government, the Bush administration, having been burned in 2002 and now consumed by Iraq and its “war on terror,” has shown no appetite for new adventures south of the border.
Birns, for example, noted that Washington may have provided only about $4 million to opposition sectors, a fraction of the $20 million it devoted to the campaign to get Violeta Chamorro elected president in Nicaragua, a country with only about 15 percent of Venezuela’s population, in 1990.
As much as the administration’s ideologues favor “regime change” in Venezuela, Bush’s policy has been guided by its need for stability and no oil-market disruptions, according to Walsh.
“This has been Chavez’ formula for staying in power,” according to Shifter. “He lets the oil flow and then he rails against the U.S. and the Bush administration, and he can get away with the latter because of the former. The irony is that it’s Bush’s policies that have given Chavez higher oil prices to win this referendum. He trashes Bush but he should be grateful.”
“You can’t underestimate the power of oil,” said LeoGrande, who noted that the other historical example of Washington “gritting its teeth and living with” a left-wing government in Latin America took place when, like today, access to oil was a top priority in a world threatened by military conflict.
Thus, after imposing a boycott on Mexican oil after President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized it in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt worried about diminishing global supplies and rising prices resisted stronger action as urged by U.S. oil companies and suggested by historical precedent. Instead, he lifted the boycott and negotiated a reparations deal that ensured continued access to Mexican oil as the United States prepared to enter World War II.
(Inter Press Service)