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