While Americans focus on the increasingly heated presidential race here at home, they would be wise to keep an eye on another presidential election of consequence for the United States—the one in Venezuela.
This Sunday, millions of Venezuelans will go to the polls in, perhaps, the most fateful presidential election in the country’s recent history—an election that current strongman President Hugo Chávez may actually lose.
Now, you would be wise not to bet the family farm on a Chávez defeat. But political observers believe that the challenger, Henrique Capriles (leader of the united opposition), might be able to topple Caracas’s caudillo, assuming a level electoral playing field.
Besides dissatisfaction with the rule of the Chavistas, one of the other reasons the comandante might feel the agony of defeat is his health. Chávez is battling cancer, which has hampered his usually colorful, aggressive campaigning.
But there is a lot more at stake for Washington than just a democratic electoral process. Chávez and his crowd have been a threat to peace, stability and U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere for years now.
To start, a loss for Chávez could mean a massive defeat for his socialist, authoritarian Bolivarian revolution in a country that previously had a strong democratic tradition and was once a friend of the United States.
His ouster could also end Chávez’s role as leader of the Latin American Left. Plus, it would probably mean a weakening, and perhaps dissolution, of the anti-U.S. league that Chávez formed—and bankrolls—in places like Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba.
Not only has Chávez kept the Castro brothers in Cuba afloat with billions of dollars in annual aid (largely in the form of Venezuelan oil swaps for Cuban technical assistance), he also has assisted the (re)ascendancy of the likes of Nicaragua’s Sandinista-retread president, Daniel Ortega.
A new regime in Caracas also could lead to the pulling in of the welcome mat for Tehran in Latin America, where Venezuela is aiding and abetting Iran in circumventing punitive international economic sanctions due to its nuclear-weapons program.
It gets worse.
A 2010 Pentagon report to Congress on the Iranian military notes that: “IRGC-QF [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Forces] maintains operational capabilities around the world. . . . Recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.”
Any doubts about this assessment were quickly dashed with the news in the fall of 2011 that the elite Iranian military Qods Force, in cahoots with Mexican drug cartels, was plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a restaurant in Washington, DC.
More troubling down the road is concern about Venezuela’s ties with Iran. If Tehran’s nuclear know-how or burgeoning ballistic-missile capability find their way to Caracas, there is the potential for a twenty-first-century Cuban Missile Crisis.
Venezuela also is believed to have a relationship with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy and terrorist ally. Hezbollah has used the region to raise money and run weapons. Both Iran and Hezbollah have been implicated in the Israeli embassy (1992) and the Jewish community center (1994) bombings in Buenos Aires.
It is certainly possible that in the event of U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran, Venezuela could be used as a launching pad for terror or other attacks against the United States or American interests in the region.
Some, including members of Congress, have called for Venezuela to be added to the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, along with the likes of Iran and Syria, due to revelations about its support for the Colombian narco-terror group FARC.