Venezuela’s cancer-stricken leader, Hugo Chávez, appears to be losing ground to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, and the ruling party is taking dramatic steps to bully the opposition and to whitewash the results of the Oct. 7 balloting. Only in Venezuela could violent street gangs and a former U.S. president be on the same team.
According to sources in Miraflores palace, about two months ago, Chávez began refusing cancer treatment and check-ups, insisting that returning to the campaign trail would invigorate him. In recent weeks, as doctors warned, this dangerous decision has taken a terrible toll. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for his medical team to prepare him for periodic public appearances.
At a Sept. 15 rally in San Fernando de Apure, Chávez wept openly during an emotional appeal at a political rally. Two days later, the Spanish-language Univision caught two senior government ministers on an open microphone lamenting the poor organization and underwhelming turnout of a rally in a Caracas barrio. The Univision report contrasted that event with massive mobilization held days earlier by Capriles’ campaign. These anecdotes and a series of narrowing poll numbers suggest that Chávez’s followers are demoralized by his faltering performance.
In a front-page exposé on Sept. 21 the Spanish newspaper ABC published a series of leaked Chavista documents detailing plans to deploy “armed commandos” on the streets as 19 million Venezuelans go to the polls. Investigative journalist Emili Blasco describes “rapid mobilization networks” — known by their Spanish initials, REMI — modeled on the “Iranian basij units that aborted the ‘Green Revolution’ in 2009.” Consisting of mobile teams of 5-7 members, the REMIs are expected to “organize street demonstrations and resistance,” “control territory,” monitor opposition activities, etc. One of these gangs, known as La Piedrita, is headquartered very near the presidential palace. Blasco cited a Venezuelan colonel who said that 8,000 Russian assault rifles were distributed to these REMIs beginning in June.
It is notable that these Chavista squads also are charged with “gathering intelligence on police and military movements,” using a series of codes to be texted to their base of operations reporting the presence of helicopters, planes, armed personnel carriers, etc. The Venezuelan military is traditionally responsible for election-day logistics, so they have a legitimate reason to be moving about the country that day. On two occasions in recent years, military commanders played another role: insisting that Chávez recognize the defeat of key constitutional amendments in 2007 and accept an opposition victory in the national assembly elections in 2010. Although Chávez has packed the military with loyalists, he is on guard against another such challenge.
Chávez also is taking steps to ensure that the international community accepts his victory, no matter what the outcome. In this, he is counting on former President Jimmy Carter and retired governor and Clinton Cabinet member Bill Richardson. On Sept.11, Carter described Venezuela’s electoral system “as the best in the world.” Carter then called Chávez, and the two men exchanged compliments during a 30- to 40-minute conversation. According to palace sources, Chávez’s team hopes that Carter will deploy a last-minute electoral mission, bless a Chávez victory and gain tacit recognition of the Obama administration.
As for Richardson, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) has asked the Chávez regime for its permission to name the retired U.S. pol to head an election mission. Richardson already has passed the word to Chávez that he has a great fondness for Venezuela and is eager to do what he can to legitimize the upcoming elections.
These very different developments — the deployment of street gangs and high-level diplomacy — have the common objective of guaranteeing the Chávez regime’s survival. It is troubling that the Chavistas are premeditating the use of street violence on election day, secure in the knowledge that Carter and Richardson will ignore all this in a rush to legitimize a Chávez victory.
Some representatives of Venezuela’s opposition have been warning of Chavista violence, but Capriles refuses to do or say anything that might cast doubt on the electoral process and suppress his turnout. However, if he does not respond to these two Chavista gambits, he may see a hard-earned victory stolen from him and his people.
As for Washington, if violence does mar Venezuela’s election, let it be known that it was planned and executed by Chávez and his followers. And let Carter and Richardson be on notice that their deliberate role in all this will not be overlooked.
Roger F. Noriega held senior positions in the State Department in the administration of President George W. Bush (2001-2005) and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.