Polls in anticipation of Venezuela’s presidential election on October 7 yield, not surprisingly, wildly different results. A survey by Datanálisis puts President Chávez ahead of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by nearly 15 points, and Consultores 21 predicts a much tighter race and places Capriles on top with just a narrow margin. Both Chávez and Capriles have declared that they have the support of the majority of Venezuelans. Chávez insists that he needs to complete his “Bolivarian Revolution.” Capriles has vowed to tackle everyday issues, such as rising crime and violence, and has pledged to liberalize currency controls and promote investment in agriculture. Both predict dire consequences if they lose. Chávez contends that “civil war” will break out, and Capriles insists that a Chávez victory would take Venezuela one step closer to becoming “another Cuba.”
Polling data are notoriously unreliable wherever elections are not strictly about choosing a government but, to some citizens, are perceived as involving a change in the underlying regime. For many Venezuelans, both pro- and anti-Chavista, the balloting in October is precisely about regime continuity or change. The surveys undoubtedly reflect that this may indeed be a transcendent election in Venezuela. This unreliability further complicates analysis of what happens after the election: how both sides would respond to a razor-thin margin of victory or to a decisive verdict. In the latter circumstance, the losing parties would seem to have no option but to relent, but the challenge would be no less daunting if Capriles wins and has to effect a smooth transition.
The Obama Administration, for its part, has tried to keep its distance from the Chávez government – except for the occasional counternarcotics cooperation – and overall has avoided interference in the electoral process. But persistent tensions in the relationship make it hard for Washington to assert neutrality in the elections. Capriles, in an interview with the Miami Herald, criticized the Obama administration for caring little about Latin America, saying “I think the bureaucracy ate him up.” Capriles urged the U.S. to establish a “relationship of equals” with Latin American nations. Such criticism most likely reflects a desire by Capriles to appear independent of Washington, but should he find himself in the Presidency, it may take on a life of its own – and he may join most of the region’s leaders in regretting U.S. aloofness toward the region.