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Hugo Chávez vs Henrique Capriles: Venezuelan vote will have regional impact

Whether Chávez or Capriles wins will affect national issues like fighting crime, but will also impact regional neighbors like Cuba and the Dominican Republic that depend on Chávez's oil diplomacy.

By Andrew RosatiContributor, Sara Miller LlanaStaff Writer / October 5, 2012

Whether voters decide to keep current Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (l.) in power or pass the position to the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles will have a direct impact on their daily lives. Voters will head to the polls on Sunday, October 7.

Nicolas Garcia/AP, Fernando Llano/AP

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Caracas, Venezuela; and Mexico City

On Sunday, Venezuelans will head to the polls to vote in a race with arguably the most significant policy implications of their lifetime.

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Whether voters decide to keep current President Hugo Chávez in power or pass the position to the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, will have a direct impact on their daily lives. From the way oil revenue is distributed and crime is tackled, to the ways laws are passed and court cases are decided – two very different Venezuelas could emerge after Oct. 7.

But the race will also have a far-reaching influence outside of Venezuela too, impacting the rest of Latin America – both pragmatically and politically. If president Chávez loses it could be felt by regular Cubans, who are recipients of highly subsidized oil, or Dominicans, who drive down Chávez-financed roads. And while the leftist movements in Latin America would certainly not disappear if Chávez no longer heads Venezuela, their agendas would be weakened – for good or bad – depending on the disparate points of view on Chávez, one of the most polarizing figures in modern Latin American history.

“The election is going to have a major impact on the region,” says Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela’s University of the East and the author of "Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon."

“If you examine what people are saying … across the political spectrum, they all single out Venezuela as a key country,” Mr. Ellner says.

Balancing the Universe

Chávez was elected president in 1998, hailed by the country’s long-excluded underclass for focusing on the poor with new social safety nets. He also emerged as the most vociferous critic of US policy and politicians – once referring to former President George W. Bush as the devil – leading a radical leftist movement with like-minded countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador.

He has easily held onto power for the past 13 years, but now he faces the biggest political test of his career. Polls still put Chávez ahead of his rival by some 10 to 20 points, but large numbers of undecided voters could bring surprises to the contest. Mr. Capriles has promised to maintain the social programs that have been the cornerstone of Chávez's presidency, but he does offer a fundamentally different foreign policy – one that would be felt across Central and South America.

In his official platform Chávez describes his position, which states that Venezuela’s role is to contribute to a new international geopolitical landscape where there are multiple leaders working together to “achieve the balance of the universe to ensure world peace,” according to the official document.

The gift of oil

Oil has been the underpinning of both Chávez's social and foreign policy, and Oscar Quiroz Serrano, petroleum adviser to the president of the Central Bank of Venezuela, says that won’t change if Chávez is reelected. Such aid is critical to a “regional project,” he says, “as a way to create regional integration [and] overcome the plundering supported by an encompassing globalization.”

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