Venezuela's Sept. 26 national parliamentary elections present a major opportunity for strongman Hugo Chavez to cement his grip on power. Despite a tradition of a free press and competitive politics, a cosmopolitan elite and extensive natural resources, Venezuela is increasingly a case study in how to lose political and economic freedom.
The stakes are especially high in light of evidence consistent with an emerging Venezuelan nuclear weapons program. Ironically, Chavez's frequently clownish behavior protects him, camouflaging the seriousness of his potential threat to U.S. security and to democratic societies throughout Latin America.
Washington, under Republican and Democratic administrations, has proved unable or unwilling to slow Chavez's descent into authoritarianism. Unlike coups by prior caudillos in the Americas, the situation in Venezuela today is like a slow-motion train wreck, which makes it all the more frustrating. A lack of international outrage is discouraging pro-democracy Venezuelans across the ideological spectrum. They worry they have been forgotten, especially by an Obama administration that finds foreign policy a distraction.
This month's elections, therefore, may be a last chance for change before Chavez completes his takeover. He has advanced his agenda since taking office in 1999 by fragmenting his domestic opposition, manipulating election rules, closing down opposition news sources and expropriating the considerable assets of businesses and entrepreneurs. He has materially impaired Venezuela's prosperous petroleum economy by failing to make prudent investments and improvements, while using substantial oil revenues to consolidate his hold on power.
Even more disturbing are Chavez's international threats. While Latin American democracies have refrained from doing anything that smacks of "interference" in Venezuela's internal affairs, Chavez has felt no similar compunction. For example, it's clear he has sheltered, supplied and financed FARC guerrillas who seek to overthrow the government in neighboring, and still-democratic, Colombia. In decades past, accusations that the United States was engaged in such tactics would have brought millions into the streets shouting "Yanqui go home!"
Last year, Chavez led the charge against those in Honduras trying to prevent its fragile democracy (and one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest countries) from being subverted by Manuel Zelaya, a would-be caudillo. Chavez has poured money — openly or through suspected clandestine channels — into elections in Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador to support leftist candidates of his ilk. To that same end, he questioned the legitimacy of President Felipe Calderon's election in Mexico and purchased much of Argentina's sovereign debt. One can only imagine what he might be doing to support the Mexican drug cartels, as with their cohorts in Colombia. For that reason, Venezuelan involvement in hemispheric drug trafficking should be a top U.S. intelligence priority.
On the world stage, Chavez's behavior is increasingly ominous. As Fidel Castro has aged and Cuba's relations with Russia have faded, Chavez has stepped forward. He has engaged in extensive military cooperation with Moscow, including major acquisitions of conventional weapons, from infantry rifles to sophisticated, high-end weapons well beyond any conceivably legitimate requirements of Venezuela's military. Chavez's purchases of advanced-model Kalashnikov assault rifles, some Venezuelan businessmen and former diplomats suggest, are meant to arm campesino "militias" that will rally to him if Venezuela's military ever threatens his regime, or the weapons may be destined for revolutionary or terrorist groups. In either case, the consequences would be profoundly negative.
Beyond enhancing his own swaggering reputation, Chavez's growing closeness with Russia and Iran on nuclear matters should be our greatest concern. For decades, after military governments fell in Brazil and Argentina, Latin America prided itself on avoiding the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco symbolized this perceived immunity, but the region's nuclear-free status is today gravely threatened.
Now, Venezuela is openly helping Iran evade international sanctions imposed because of Tehran's nuclear weapons program. Along with the refined petroleum products it supplies Tehran, Chavez allows Iranian banks and other sanctioned enterprises to use Caracas as a base for conducting business internationally and, reportedly, to facilitate Hezbollah's activity in the hemisphere.