Foreign and Defense Policy, Latin America

Venezuela’s democrats may face Chávez’s narco-coup

Followers of cancer-stricken strongman Hugo Chávez are stunned after nearly 3 million Venezuelans voted Sunday to select a unity candidate to compete in presidential elections scheduled for October. Venezuelan democrats are unified and optimistic today, but Chávez and his henchmen already have made their moves to hold on to power at all costs. If the opposition has any real hope of defeating Chavismo, they will have to be prepared for dirty tricks, provocations, and even a narco-coup in the months ahead.

Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski won the opposition primary with over 60 percent of the vote, after a spirited competition that included Zulia Governor Pablo Perez (29 percent) and civic leader Maria Corina Machado (3.5 percent). Though not quite 40 years old, Capriles is a seasoned and tough politician who enjoys great popularity even among the Chávista followers in his state of Miranda. Capriles campaigned frequently in the working class neighborhoods that form Chávez’s political base.

In his second-place effort, Perez carried the opposition’s message to the very poor voters that, until now, have literally been ignored by the old thinkers who have led the opposition for the last decade. With all of the candidates expected to close ranks around Capriles, the democratic opposition is united like never before and preparing for an eight-month campaign.

An invigorated opposition is more bad news for Chavismo in this volatile election year. Spiraling crime rates, energy shortages, food insecurity, and a shattered economy give the opposition its best chance ever of out-polling Chávez. If Chávez dies or falters significantly before the October election, his inner circle will have to face the unthinkable prospect of losing power and being held accountable for its abuses of power, corruption, and criminality.

In recent months, Chavista hard-liners have been maneuvering to ensure that they will never relinquish power. In January, Chávez surprised many by sidelining his popular foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, and promoting former military comrade Diosdado Cabello to be head of the ruling socialist party and the National Assembly. Even more telling, General Henry Rangel Silva was named minister of defense last month, despite his notorious reputation as a drug-trafficking ally of the narco-guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

Rangel Silva, former intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, and Army General Cliver Alcala are among the many Chavista officials who have been sanctioned by U.S. authorities for their involvement in drug trafficking. Because they fear the relentless pursuit of U.S. authorities, they are determined to remain in power—even if that means scuttling or ignoring the results of elections this fall.

If the Chavistas were contemplating an electoral scenario once Chávez dies, they would have opted for keeping the more charismatic Maduro as a possible successor. The promotion of the bland but ruthless Cabello demonstrates that appealing to voters is far less important than reassuring the narco-generals who have quietly seized control of Venezuela. Although Cabello has yet to be cited by U.S. authorities as a narcotrafficker, he has amassed a vast fortune through official corruption. So, his corrupt military comrades are confident that he will thwart an opposition takeover by any means necessary.

The timing and tactics will depend on the pace of Chávez’s physical deterioration. The latest details conveyed to me by persons knowledgeable of his condition indicate that Chávez’s cancerous cell count has yet to be reduced after months of treatment, and he has developed another cancerous tumor in his colon that requires urgent surgery. His condition has worsened because he refuses routine care and examinations in order to maintain a public profile. Indeed, the hard-driving leader has turned to the use of cocaine to maintain his energy. As a result, there is a good chance that Chávez will not live long enough to appear on the October ballot.

In other words, the real test for candidate Capriles and the opposition may come sooner than they expect. Chávez and his followers have made clear by the appointment of Cabello and Rangel Silva that they have no intention of surrendering power. If they try to provoke a crisis or to cancel the elections, chaos may ensue. In that hour, the toughness of Capriles, the other opposition leaders, and Venezuelan civilian society will be severely tested.

Although the opposition is determined to keep its distance from Washington, the fact remains that they will require substantial international solidarity—particularly from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Spain, the United States, and other countries—to hold Chávez’s cronies accountable. The opposition cannot wait until the chaos descends upon them to begin cultivating such support. And Washington has to wake up to the dangerous plotting of a narco-coup in Venezuela.

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