- - Friday, October 12, 2012


Venezuela’s democratic opposition leaders are disappointed by their unsuccessful campaign to unseat caudillo Hugo Chavez in elections on Oct. 7. It may be too soon to give up hope. Mr. Chavez is losing his battle with cancer, his regime is being undermined by infighting and criminality, and he must deal with a series of elections that will take place throughout the country in the coming year.

Mr. Chavez is sick, and his campaign schedule took a strong physical toll on him. For more than six months, reliable sources have explained to me that Mr. Chavez’s medical team is merely treating symptoms of his aggressive cancer to maintain a public facade. For most of the campaign period, this ruse succeeded. A dramatic video from his closing rally on Oct. 4 shows Mr. Chavez tumbling backward, apparently disoriented, and being rushed away by panicked aides.

He is paying the ultimate price — and for what? His regime now must wrestle with a public security crisis that has claimed 160,000 lives since 1999 and an economic disaster compounded by profligate election-year spending. It is difficult to see how a government whose congress and army are led by reputed narco-traffickers and that hosts Iran and Hezbollah could be legitimized by any election. Moreover, it should be clear even to the casual observer that Mr. Chavez did not win a fair fight a week ago. Indeed, from the outset, many Venezuelans were skeptical of waging such a contest in light of the regime’s abuse of billions of dollars in public spending, command of the media, Cuban-managed internal security apparatus and ruthless threat of political violence.

Nevertheless, the unprecedented unity and enthusiasm that fueled the campaign of Henrique Capriles Radonski — who won 45 percent of the vote, even with the dubious count of a Chavez-controlled electoral board — demonstrated the opposition’s formidable strength. The 2012 campaign did not vanquish the opposition; it created it. A unified opposition is better prepared to compete for votes and power in the very near future.

For example, in the next 18 months, Venezuela will elect governors for its 24 states and mayors for all of its 335 municipalities. Opposition leaders are expected to field strong candidates in all of these contests. To the extent that they unify behind a single alternative, they stand to make significant political advances against Chavismo.

Then there is the question of a special election to choose a successor if Mr. Chavez dies. If he expires before he completes four years of his six-year term in office, a new election must be called within 30 days. Although such a contest may be months away, the infighting among Mr. Chavez’s cronies already has begun in earnest. Such internecine warfare among the criminals and thugs who make up his inner circle likely will inflict great damage on the movement before its chosen successor even faces the invigorated opposition.

The Venezuelan opposition will live to fight another day. Still, how well can it be expected to fare against an unrelenting political machine that is managed by Cuba, financed by China, armed by Russia and partnered with Iran? Colombian and Mexican narco-traffickers and Hezbollah terrorists operate with the complicity of Venezuelan authorities. All of these forces have a stake in the survival of a Chavista regime.

One thing that is clearer today than ever is that Venezuelan democrats cannot wage this struggle on their own. Why should they? The United States and our allies are the real targets of this regime and its powerful backers. Venezuelans are innocent bystanders, caught in the crossfire. For a democratic alternative to have any chance against the status quo, the United States must mobilize international solidarity and confront those countries using Venezuela as a platform and proxy to threaten us.

For example, we must use diplomacy to rally the region’s democrats to demand a fair campaign environment and international observation. We must investigate and expose the electoral machinery that is engineered to deny a fair vote count. We must empower U.S. law enforcement agencies to expose the criminal activities of Chavista leaders, whose narco-state threatens dozens of countries in the region. Finally, we must send an unambiguous message to Havana, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran that their decision to sustain a hostile regime on our doorstep will have consequences.

President Obama has been unwilling to do any of this, while Mitt Romney has spoken frequently of these threats. For this reason, our elections will be as important as any to freedom and security in the Americas.

I respect the desire of Venezuelan democrats to defeat Chavismo without any help from outsiders. However, they are tangling with foreign foes. If we get off the sidelines to defend our values and our security, we can help decent Venezuelans recover their sovereignty and dignity.

Roger F. Noriega is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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