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A Critical Moment for Latin America

8:30 AM, Sep 28, 2012 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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We are now less than two weeks away from an election that could either save or destroy what remains of Venezuelan democracy.

Chavez, Hugo

Hugo Chávez has already acquired near dictatorial control over Venezuela’s public institutions. He has already established an iron grip over most broadcast media content. And he has already created a heavily armed pro-government militia that is tasked with defending his Bolivarian revolution.

Yet despite all these obstacles, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles has been able to mount a serious challenge. As of late August, the 40-year-old Capriles led Chávez by roughly 2 percentage points (48.1 percent against 46.2 percent) in polling conducted by the Caracas-based firm Consultores 21. “If we were to make a linear projection for the election,” Consultores 21 president Luis Christiansen told an audience in New York last week, “it would be that Capriles will maintain an advantage of 2.5 percent over Chávez.”

Of course, even if Capriles garnered a majority of the vote, Chávez might simply pull an Ahmadinejad and steal the election—in which case, Venezuela could easily descend into post-election street violence. “The closer the race, the greater the temptation for Chávez to cheat,” writes Heritage Foundation scholar Ray Walser.

Concerns over possible election fraud are well founded. In 2010, Henry Rangel Silva, a fierce Chávez loyalist and the current Venezuelan defense minister, declared that “the armed forces are not going to accept” an opposition-led government. Meanwhile, Barinas state governor Adán Chávez, Hugo’s brother, has emphasized that there is more than one way to preserve the Bolivarian revolution: “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle,”
he said last year. Venezuela is already among the “top four or five” most murderous countries in the world, according to a study by Venezuelan criminologist Luis Bravo, and senior military officials are heavily involved in the drug trade.

A Chávez victory would be a devastating setback for democracy and the rule of law, and it would push Venezuela closer to a financial catastrophe. Indeed, Morgan Stanley analyst Daniel Volberg has projected that Chávez’s economic and fiscal policies “may be taking Venezuela towards a crisis and potentially even a debt event that could come as early as the second half of 2013.”

Venezuela is not the only large Latin American nation that is entering a critically important period. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos has launched peace negotiations with the FARC, a narco-trafficking terrorist organization that has been at war with the Colombian state since the mid-1960s. His predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, has warned that these negotiatons carry a high risk: “We all want peace, but there can’t be a negotiation while the terrorists are continuing their criminal activities,” Uribe recently told Reuters. “It creates investor panic and in turn creates difficulties in financing social policy.”

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