Chalk up another defeat for Hugo Chávez. Last weekend, Colombian voters delivered a landslide victory to conservative presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos, who clobbered former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus by nearly 42 percentage points.
Always eager to meddle in foreign elections, Chávez had strongly criticized Santos during the campaign, calling him a “threat to the region” and warning that “he could cause a war in this part of the world, upon instructions from the Yankees.” On April 25, the Venezuelan dictator said that, while Santos was “trying to dress as Little Red Riding Hood,” he was actually “a wolf sent to bomb and invade Ecuador,” referring to a 2008 Colombian military operation undertaken while Santos was serving as defense minister. (That operation crossed into Ecuadorean territory, but it resulted in the death of Raúl Reyes, a leading narco-terrorist who had long menaced Colombia by orchestrating kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations.)
Chávez had hoped to dissuade Colombians from electing a conservative security hawk. Yet his remarks backfired completely. Prior to his clumsy intervention in the campaign, Santos and Mockus were running neck and neck in the polls. Some analysts even believed the Green Party candidate might secure a majority in the first round of voting on May 30, and thereby win election. But Chávez proved to be a “game-changer.” His attacks on Santos reminded Colombians of the radical autocracy that sits next door—a government that has sponsored drug-trafficking terrorists in Colombia, has massed troops along the border, and has repeatedly raised the possibility of war.
Mockus also committed a disastrous unforced error on April 26, when he told a Colombian radio interviewer, “I admire Chávez,” noting that the Venezuelan leader was democratically elected. This comment caused a media frenzy, and Mockus had to walk it back. “I used the word ‘admire’ inappropriately,” he told another radio station the next day. “I think nobody would have paid attention to this issue if I had just said that I respect the government of President Chávez, who was democratically elected, anyway.” But the damage had been done. Anti-Mockus signs reading “I admire Hugo Chávez” began appearing. There’s no question that the initial statement did major damage to his election hopes. On May 30, Mockus received only 21.5 percent of the vote, while Santos garnered 46.7 percent. In the runoff election on June 20, Santos routed Mockus by a margin of 69.1 percent to 27.5 percent.
To be sure, Chávez was not the only reason that Santos triumphed. The outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, whom Santos served under as defense chief from 2006 to 2009, is hugely popular for making Colombia a much safer and more prosperous country. Santos is a fierce advocate of Uribe’s “democratic security” policies, which have been tremendously successful, and which voters continue to support. Yet the campaign momentum didn’t swing in Santos's favor until Chávez intervened and Mockus made his ill-advised comment.
By my count, this is the third Latin American presidential election in which the Venezuelan strongman has played a significant role in driving voters toward a conservative candidate. It happened in Peru and Mexico in 2006, when he supported the left-wing candidacies of Ollanta Humala and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, both of whom were defeated by center-right opponents (Alan García and Felipe Calderón, respectively). In each case, Chávez’s endorsement proved wildly counterproductive. Humala and López Obrador were both leading in the polls, and yet both ended up losing. The message was clear: Peruvians and Mexicans do not want their countries to become Venezuelan satellites.
Neither do Colombians, who face a direct security threat from Chávez. In March 2008, Colombian armed forces recovered documents highlighting Venezuela’s extensive links to the FARC, Colombia’s deadliest terrorist group. When the Uribe administration publicized the contents of these documents, Chávez called Colombia “a terrorist state,” moved Venezuelan tanks and troops to the border, and warned that a military conflict was possible.
We should not take his threats lightly. Earlier this year, Spanish National Court magistrate Eloy Velasco accused the Venezuelan government of conspiring with two terrorist organizations, the FARC and the Spanish ETA, to assassinate Uribe. Venezuela has also been stockpiling a massive arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, much of it purchased from Russia. Meanwhile, in a brazen display of hypocrisy, Chávez has loudly condemned Colombia’s 2009 military-base agreement with the United States.
Santos is a prominent champion of that agreement. Now he will be Colombia’s president—thanks in no small part to Hugo Chávez. Perhaps he should send a thank-you note to Caracas.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.