With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez facing the most serious re-election challenge of his 14-year reign, international observers are bracing for the possibility of social unrest if the outcome is close when voters go to the polls Sunday.
“I think the probability of upheaval and protests increases the closer the vote gets,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas in New York.
A close vote count between Mr. Chavez and his fresh-faced challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski may trigger a street-level clash between viscerally opposed supporters of the two.
“There are rumors that Chavista armed organizations are ready to come down from the hills should Capriles win,” said Mr. Sabatini. “The other side is that if Capriles loses in a squeaker, his supporters have some pretty good basis to claim fraud.”
The prospect of an Election Day meltdown in Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, caps a dramatic campaign in which many wondered whether the 58-year-old Mr. Chavez would overcome a battle with cancer to run for a third consecutive presidential term.
Most polls going into the weekend showed a small lead for the Venezuelan president, who has made international headlines over the past decade for being perhaps the world’s most bombastic critic of the United States.
Outside observers credit Mr. Capriles, an energetic 40-year-old state governor, with harnessing a coalition of the nation’s fractured opposition factions more effectively than any previous challenger to Mr. Chavez.
Mr. Capriles has won favor among many by hammering Mr. Chavez’s failure to rein in violent crime that finds drug-smuggling and kidnapping to be rampant in Venezuela, where the homicide rate is among the highest in the world.
It is a platform Mr. Capriles hoped would open cracks in the cultlike popularity Mr. Chavez’s has long enjoyed, especially among Venezuela’s poor. They voted en mass for him six years ago after benefiting from socialist education and health care programs that he championed during his early years in power.
“I voted for him, but I regret it,” Rosina Dambrosio, a homemaker in Caracas’ largest low-income barrio told The Associated Press recently.
“He was going to modernize Venezuela and fight crime. And he also spoke so beautifully. I guess we trusted him too much. He still speaks nicely, but I don’t believe him anymore.”
Sunday’s vote will be the best measure of how widely such views are shared.
“Capriles has run a great campaign, has momentum and is getting around, but Chavez is still in a very strong position,” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “He still has a connection to a lot of Venezuelans.”
The vote is being watched closely by officials at the State Department, who are all too aware of the delicate relationship that exists between Washington and Caracas.
Recent years have seen Venezuela remain a key oil partner to the United States, with U.S. companies buying a steady flow of Venezuelan crude, despite Mr. Chavez’s close alliance to Iran, which is currently under heavy U.S. and international sanctions.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, describes the U.S.-Venezuela relationship as one of “antagonistic co-dependence.”
“We’re absolutely certain that Venezuela is in a deep economic relationship with Iran and that they’re helping Iran circumvent sanctions, but we’re also dependent on Venezuela for their crude oil and, as a result, we’ve allowed them a free pass,” Mr. Dubowitz said.
Since the past several U.S. presidents from both sides of the aisle have done little to confront such circumstances, it remains to be seen how Venezuela might make its way into the upcoming foreign policy debates between President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Mr. Sabatini said the Romney camp may attempt to “make it look like the Obama administration has put U.S. security interests at risk by not being hard enough on Chavez, or by not keeping enough focus on Iran’s activities in the hemisphere.”
Questions, meanwhile, often swirl through Washington’s foreign policy establishment over the extent to which Mr. Chavez seeks to militarize the socialist revolution that he has created in Venezuela.
During the course of the presidential campaign, he circulated a platform document titled “Proposal From the Fatherland’s Candidate, Commander Hugo Chavez.”
While much of it consists of fresh calls for grass-roots political participation among the nation’s rural and urban populations, Mr. Sabatini said the document also advocates a significant expansion of executive control over the Venezuelan military.
“Right now, you still have a Venezuelan national guard, army and air force all with distinct flavors of higher-ups tied to Chavez’s party in different ways. What he wants to do, according to his campaign platform, is erase that,” he said.
Others say such portrayals of Mr. Chavez show how grossly most analysts in the U.S. have come to misinterpret the Venezuelan president’s vision.
“If you read the stuff in the press here in the U.S., you’ll get the impression that Chavez is somehow trying to become dictatorial by trying to control the military,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, a think tank in Washington.
“But I think what he’s doing is really something that a democratic president ought to do,” said Mr. Weisbrot, who noted that members of the Venezuelan military carried out a failed 2002 coup attempt against Mr. Chavez.