ALBA’s Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Discussion of the U.S. election in  the countries roughly aligned under the banner of the “Bolivarian Alliance” (ALBA) – Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina – generally reflects their own polarized domestic politics.  In Venezuela, comparisons between the two countries electoral campaigns were common.  Washington-based commentator Moisés Naím suggested that Romney could learn from Venezuelan Presidential candidate Capriles’s empathy and inclusiveness in order to unseat Obama.  Andrés Correa ripped President Obama, saying he needs to take Chávez more seriously and needs “an atlas and a compass so he can figure out where he is and come to understand that the United States has more connections with Latin America than with any other part of the world.”  In a column that appeared in several countries, Argentine Ricardo Trotti praised the civic spirit of the first U.S. Presidential debate, and took Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández to task for not engaging in debates.  “The fear of debating implies a fear of democracy,” he wrote.  In Nicaragua, former education minister Humberto Belli Pereira made a similar point in La Prensa, as did a commentator in Bolivia’s El Deber.

Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama as being naïve about the pernicious influence of the “failed ideology” of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Castro brothers attracted wide coverage throughout the region – with predictable reactions from each side.  In ALBA countries, opposition media evinced skepticism of Obama and appreciation for Romney’s promises to take a hard line against Chávez, and pro-government outlets portrayed the Republican as a loose cannon who trumpets Manifest Destiny and military options.  Chávez’s reference to Romney as “crazy” during the primaries set the tone for some media.  On Aporrea, a popular pro-Chávez online forum, one commentator said he preferred Clinton Eastwood’s empty chair to either Romney or Obama.  In Argentina, Martin Kanenguiser wrote in La Nación that his country could only “tie or lose” in the U.S. election, particularly in regard to the Argentine relationship with international financial institutions.  The 2011 elections in Argentina, followed by the U.S. 2012 contest, have contributed to a sour atmosphere for bilateral relations, noted Leandro Morgenfeld in Marcha.

That the U.S. election has become polarizing illustrates the challenges the new U.S. administration will face in 2013.  If Romney wins and follows through on his rhetoric, he might please hardliners in the U.S. and opposition groups in ALBA-aligned countries, but relations will become even more bitter.  If Obama is re-elected, those opposition groups will continue seeking support for their own agendas and pressure from Washington on ALBA governments. However, the dearth of high level attention would likely continue in a second Obama administration, leaving bilateral relationships to stagnate.  More likely, the real choice in U.S.-ALBA relations will be between empty rhetoric and deafening silence – while further exposing the limits of U.S. influence in the region.

Venezuelan Elections: Chávez Wins, but Confirms Country’s Divide

Henrique Capriles Radonski and Hugo Chávez | Venezuela’s Globovision | Flickr | Creative Commons license

Following a tense day of voting on Sunday, incumbent Hugo Chávez has won the Venezuelan presidential elections.  With 90 percent of the ballots counted, Chávez had approximately 7.4 million votes (about 54.4%) while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles won 6.15 million votes (44.9%).  The president won every state in Venezuela except Táchira and Mérida, and secured a majority of votes in Zulia State, traditionally a bastion of support for the opposition.  Turnout was nearly 81 percent, a very high figure, and thousands of Venezuelans cast their ballots at consulates and voting centers abroad.  As of yet, there have been no allegations of voter fraud or post-electoral violence and both candidates appear to have accepted the result.  A delegation from UNASUR “accompanied” the vote and has affirmed that the electoral process was legitimate.

Chávez will embark on his third consecutive presidential term in January 2013 and, health permitting, will remain in power until at least 2019.  The ruling PSUV has a sufficient majority in parliament to ensure that Chávez will be able to legislate comfortably.  However, should Chávez’s health prevent his completing the term, the PSUV lacks an obvious successor who could carry forward with the Bolivarian Revolution.  Regardless, the Chávez agenda faces huge challenges, particularly with an economy rife with distortions and a security situation spiraling out of control.

While Capriles and the opposition were defeated at the polls, his candidacy galvanized an opposition that is far better organized and more united than at any point since Chávez’s  rise to the Presidency 14 years ago.  The 6.15 million votes Capriles received was the greatest number ever for a losing candidate in a presidential Venezuelan election, and kept Chávez’s margin of victory within single-digits.  Clearly, a large segment of the population opposes further expansion of the Bolivarian Revolution.  It remains to be seen whether a united opposition can complicate Chávez’s efforts to move Venezuela further down the road to his brand of socialism.   

Uncertainty in Runup to Venezuela Elections

Photo: Venezuela elections 2012 | by World Development Movement | Flickr | Creative Commons

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.