Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez '13 on Hugo Chavez in Foreign Policy

No Exit
Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, '13
Foreign Policy
October 4, 2012

Despite its high crime rate, Venezuela has historically managed to largely avoid the political bloodshed that plagued so many of its neighbors during the twentieth century. But is that about to change? This past Sunday, supporters of President Hugo Chávez confronted a crowd of activists who had gathered in the state of Barinas to celebrate the campaign of Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in the approaching presidential election. By day's end two Capriles organizers lay dead, gunned down in broad daylight by angry chavistas. The government says it is investigating, and so far three suspects have been detained.

The killings make for an ominous portent. The Venezuelan opposition, long crippled by internal divisions, has combined forces to mount the first serious challenge to Chávez in recent memory. Capriles has managed to revitalize previously disenchanted supporters while making inroads into the poor and rural populations that have traditionally served as the president's base. The ailing president, meanwhile, has been drawing comparatively smaller crowds, in fewer places, and has seen his once insurmountable margins steadily slip away over the past two months. While the polling data remains contradictory, the fact that one of the country's most respected pollsters is giving Capriles a four-point lead suggests that the opposition finally has at least a chance to unseat the once unassailable president.

All this begs the question: How far might Hugo Chávez be willing to go to defend his revolution?

If Venezuelans can agree on anything, it is that they find it hard to imagine a scenario in which a defeated President Chávez peacefully hands over power. To many, this stems from a sincere belief that the charismatic populist leader, armed with the full resources of the state and still beloved by much of the country, would never actually lose a popular election. Others find it hard to imagine that Chávez, who once famously vowed to defend his revolution with his life, would ever willingly step aside.