Andres Oppenheimer

Chile’s new president vows to keep fighting for democracy in Venezuela. Will he?

Chile's president-elect Sebastián Piñera said he will continue to fight for democracy in Venezuela when he takes office on March 11.
Chile's president-elect Sebastián Piñera said he will continue to fight for democracy in Venezuela when he takes office on March 11. AP

Chile’s President-elect Sebastian Piñera told me in an extended interview this week that he has no plans to tone down his activism for democracy in Venezuela once he takes office for a second four-year term on Sunday. The big question is: How much political capital will he spend on this issue?

“I am convinced that in Venezuela there’s no democracy, there’s no rule of law, there’s no respect for human rights and, on top of that, there’s a profound political, economic and social crisis,” Piñera told me. “Therefore, as president of Chile, I am not going to remain indifferent to the suffering and the pain of the Venezuelan people.”

In recent years, after his first term in office from 2010 to 2014, Piñera has been one of Latin America’s most vocal politicians in international efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela. He even traveled to Venezuela in 2015 to try to visit imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López.

But, as president, Piñera may have to walk a fine line on domestic and foreign policy issues, because his center-right coalition will not have a majority in the 155-seat lower house of Congress.

During the interview, which will air in full Sunday night on CNN en Español, Piñera said that the international community should not accept the results of the sham elections that Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro is planning to hold on May 20 to reelect himself.

He said that Venezuela’s electoral process, “such as it’s being conducted nowadays, does not meet the test of a free, transparent and democratic process. That’s why I think we should not recognize a government whose origin is not based on a clean and transparent election.”

Asked whether he would contemplate breaking diplomatic ties with Venezuela, Piñera said that “I think that we Latin American countries should set in motion all legal tools, including the (Organization of American States’) Democratic Charter, to help Venezuela and the Venezuelan people to recover their freedom, their democracy and their rule of law.”

Under the OAS’ Democratic Charter, signatory countries can impose diplomatic sanctions on any member country that breaks the rule of law. Piñera added, however, that “I don’t think a military option should be a solution.”

Skeptics say Piñera will soften his tone on Venezuela as he begins to seek agreements with domestic and foreign adversaries. A former business tycoon who holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard and whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at $2.8 billion, Piñera is more a pragmatist than an ideologue, they say.

Many remember that, as president, Piñera flew to Venezuela to attend the funeral of late strongman Hugo Chávez in 2013.

Also, Piñera’s main goal during his second term — he wasn’t legally able to run for reelection without waiting out a four-year period — will be to resurrect Chile’s economy, which has slowed down to an anemic 1.6 percent growth rate. That will require compromises with opposition legislators, and Venezuela could become a bargaining chip.

And one of Piñera’s top foreign policy issues will be a pending territorial dispute over landlocked Bolivia’s demand for a sovereign corridor to the Pacific Ocean.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague is scheduled to rule in coming weeks whether the issue should be subject to a negotiation between the two countries. It can’t be ruled out that Piñera may need the tacit support of some of Venezuela’s allies in his country’s upcoming diplomatic battle with Bolivia.

On the other hand, Piñera may see an opportunity to project himself as a Latin America leader on the Venezuela issue.

The diplomatic cause for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela is now led by Mexico, Peru and Argentina. But Mexico will hold elections on July 1, and a victory by leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador — who is leading in the polls — would almost certainly result in an improvement in Mexico-Venezuela ties.

Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is fighting impeachment procedures over the Odebrecht construction firm’s illegal payments to his and other campaigns, and it’s not clear whether he will be able to finish his term. So it can’t be ruled out that Piñera, in addition to meeting a campaign promise, will try to become a champion for democracy in Venezuela.

Watch the full interview on “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sunday at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera