The Barinas shootings, as well as a recent clash in the seaside town of Puerto Cabello, underline the potential for violence. Any confrontation between confident chavistas gathering for their traditional post-election celebration outside of the presidential palace, and opposition protesters demanding a reversal, could easily lead to chaos.
Particularly worrisome in this regard are the so-called Bolivarian militias, a heavily armed group of militarized civilians fiercely loyal to the government. The Miami newspaper El Nuevo Herald recently published a document purporting to inform militia members of a post-election “external intervention” planned by the United States in conjunction with “the Venezuelan far right and transnational companies.” The plan goes on to stipulate that two thousand armed militiamen should take up posts at sites of strategic importance to defend the government against the opposition.
Given this potential for instability, the powerful Venezuelan military is sure to play a key role in the likely event that the results are contested. It is difficult, however, to forecast precisely how the Venezuelan Armed Forces might behave. Unlike other national institutions such as the CNE or the courts, the VAF is something of a black box. In April 2002, when a peaceful opposition protest was met with gunfire, killing 19 unarmed men and women, the armed forces turned against Chávez, leading to his brief overthrow until loyalists within the army reinstated him in a countercoup.
Since then Chávez has been careful to assert his control over the VAF’s top brass, though even they have given conflicting signals. Henry Rangel Silva, a high-ranking general and defense minister, has stated a number of times that the army strongly supports President Chávez’s administration and will find it “difficult to accept a change in government.” Yet Willmer Barrientos, head of military operations, has made remarks suggesting that the army will maintain its neutrality regardless of the outcome. In any case, it is by no means a given that the armed forces will move against the president without a clear reason to do so.
And then there’s the international reaction. Venezuela has already scared off many foreign investors through its controversial nationalizations and its withdrawal from the ICSID convention on investment arbitration, and while such moves probably haven’t helped its economy, they have, to a certain degree, cushioned it against potential economic repercussions. The regime’s closest international relationships right now are either with client states that rely on its largesse, such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador, or with authoritarian countries such as Iran, Russia, and Belarus that are unlikely to criticize it.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy recently released a policy paper through the Council on Foreign Relations outlining possible contingencies in the case that Venezuelan elections prove destabilizing. In his view the United State’s ability to exert pressure on Venezuela unilaterally is limited by the already frosty relationship between the two countries.
A brazen power grab on the part of Chávez, or even a suspected constitutional violation, could damage Venezuela’s relations with Brazil and Colombia, and perhaps also with international organizations such as UNASUR, MERCOSUR or the OAS. But the effects are unlikely to be broad or enduring. Right now, Colombian president Santos is relying on Chávez to help him broker a peace deal with the FARC rebels; while Brazil, having put a great deal of effort into forging a strategic alliance with Chavez, may prove similarly loath to take the lead.
And while the OAS has recently punished Honduras and Paraguay for presumed violations of democratic norms by suspending them from the organization, Chávez has shown himself to be highly resistant to international shaming attempts. The best candidate for exerting pressure might be MERCOSUR, the South American trading bloc that recently admitted Venezuela after a protracted diplomatic struggle, and might be able to threaten it with expulsion.
But even if the opposition fails to dislodge the revolution, there is little doubt that Chávez will emerge from this contest significantly weakened. Even if a legitimate vote count leaves him the victor, the united opposition will have shown itself to be a force to be reckoned with.
Despite the staggering advantages enjoyed by the incumbent, that Capriles was able to mount a respectable showing will speak volumes. And Chávez, his health fading, will have to govern with a weakened mandate and state coffers emptied by his own pre-election binge spending. South America’s democratic despot may find himself vulnerable even in victory.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal.