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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.

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This is one key area in which the opposition veers from the current administration. As an oil producer, Venezuela has always provided foreign aid, but Edmundo González, the deputy foreign policy coordinator for Capriles’s coalition, says that only the current regional accords that make sense for Venezuela will be upheld. “[Capriles’s] government will not gift oil like [the Chávez administration] is right now. The Chávez government has used energy cooperation, particularly petroleum, to prop up alliances with governments that are ideologically similar,” Mr. González says. “We have to recover a foreign policy that serves [the] interests of our country.”

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Those two positions on oil – one as a geopolitical tool and one used for national development – are drawing two very distinct reactions inside Venezuela. Chávez has drawn criticism from nationals who say he has for too long cared more about his geopolitical project than the quotidian issues at home, like inflation and crime.

Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, currently imports petroleum from countries like the United States, to fulfill its domestic demand.

“There’s one plan [proposed by Capriles], which I like, which is inward looking,” says Pedro Indriago, an electrician in Caracas. “The other [plan, proposed by Chávez] wants to save the world, and not even the United States, with everything it has, has been able to do that,” Mr. Indriago says.

Bookseller Marcial Silva, on the other hand, says he worries about a return to the status quo, one that does not put the loftier ideas of foreign aid as a priority. “Venezuela as an oil exporter has a fundamental role” in the development of Latin America, he says. “Small countries simply don’t have the budget to develop.”

The Venezuelan ‘life jacket’

Indeed, it is the small countries that are part of alliances such as the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), which includes countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Cuba, that could feel the greatest consequences of this election. Cuba receives almost 100,000 barrels of subsidized petroleum a day from Chávez's Venezuela, and across the hemisphere smaller governments have received mega loans for everything from roads to refineries.

But it would also be a loss for their politics, as Chávez has led an alliance of like-minded countries that sympathize with the radical far left.

“The ‘life jacket’ Venezuela threw to Cuba was not only economic, but also political, as it revived the sympathies for the Cuban Revolution and what the Cuban model represents,” says Elsa Cardozo, a foreign relations professor at the Central University of Caracas, “bringing [the Cuban model] to Venezuela and procuring its extension to other countries.”

It is not that the leftist politics of Latin America would disappear without Chávez at the helm. “In terms of ideology, chavismo represents a very deep strain and relevant strain in Latin America politics. He is not an anomaly. The sense of frustration that he embodies is real and not just in Venezuela,” says Christopher Sabatini, the editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly, referring to the leftist politicians of Latin America that have sought more distance from the US and criticized neoliberal policies. Chávez's departure would change the political dynamic across the region, Mr. Sabatini says.

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