By all indications, Venezuela's just-concluded elections were conducted fairly. However, dictators like Hugo Chavez seldom leave such matters to chance.
Chavez used considerable public resources, including government workers, in his campaign. He has suppressed the free-speech rights of journalists and others critical of his government. And he has used the resources of the state's oil company, PDVSA, to dole money to the nation's disadvantaged and for health clinics, home construction and even sports teams. The beneficiaries of these expenditures make up a large part of his support base. In recent years he has pushed for changes that allow him to continue seeking re-election for life.
His victory over Henrique Capriles was closer than any previous election he has won, but there is little reason to believe he will slow down his move toward socialist reforms or strike a more conciliatory tone toward other nations. Americans may be focused on the economy and other domestic issues, but Venezuela will pose a foreign-policy challenge to whoever wins November's presidential election.
The reason for this has little to do with Venezuela's internal problems, which are likely to continue to grow as Chavez adds to the list of private companies he has nationalized and, as many experts believe soon will happen, he devalues the bolivar. It has much to do with the alliances he has forged with other regional states, Cuba and, most disturbing of all, Iran. Chavez has signed several agreements with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concerning trade, oil and other energy sources.
Chavez has, according to a Bloomberg report, spent as much as $7 billion on his allies in the form of cheap oil and other aid, and this amount far exceeds what the United States has spent on aid in the Latin American region. As Davidson College professor and former Defense Department official Russell Crandall wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, "No one should underestimate the capacity of the Venezuela-led bloc of quasi-authoritarian leftist governments to stop the regional trend toward greater openness and democracy..."
Clearly, Chavez is interested in spreading his influence, and he considers the United States an enemy. He is likely to continue selling oil to the United States, because he desperately needs the money, but that oil gives him a troubling bit of economic leverage. And his close ties with an Iranian regime that is working hard to acquire nuclear weapons raises concerns on several levels.
Venezuela's internal problems may be the biggest hindrance to Chavez. The current inflation rate of 18.1 percent remains among the highest in the world, although it has been falling. Even though Venezuela's economy grew by 5.4 percent in the second quarter, there are ominous signs ahead, led by the falling bolivar. Chavez has not invested in the upkeep of the state's oil company, and his confiscation of more than 1,000 private companies has scared investors away. Standard & Poor's gives the nation's debt bonds a B+ rating, which is far below investment grade.
Yet Chavez has considerable resources, backed by oil reserves, at his disposal.
The United States has lost considerable influence in South America in recent years. It must give greater attention to the region, and to the charismatic and troublesome Chavez, going forward. Americans should demand that both presidential candidates explain how they would do this.