On Sunday, voters in Venezuela go to the polls to decide whether to re-elect Hugo Chávez, their long-ruling socialist president, or Henrique Capriles Radonski, a forty-year-old lawyer and political moderate who Chávez “dismisses as ‘a fly’ not worth chasing.”

 Chávez, a former colonel, has been in power since 1999. “Since taking office in 1999, Chávez has increased the government’s role in the economy and has nationalized private businesses including cement plants, banks and retail stores,” according to the Associated Press. “He has also used the country’s oil wealth to bankroll social programs including cash benefits for poor families and state-run grocery stores.”

 Venezuela is Latin America’s biggest oil exporter, and the U.S. is its largest customer. The U.S. is also the country Chavez speaks out against most often. In Hugo Chavez: Leader of Venezuela, author Jeff C. Young writes:

“From the beginning of his career as leader of Venezuela, Chávez has continued to worry many world leaders. His control of vast reserves of oil, a vital and dwindling resource, makes it impossible to ignore him. Furthermore, Chavez has agressively antagonized the United States and has sought to build alliances with Cuba, Iran, and Syria—three nations that are avowed enemies of the United States.”

The New York Times reports that Chávez “has sought to counter American influence in the region, seizing control of the oil assets of American and European energy companies, and in other ways consolidating state control over the economy and nationalizing telephone and electricity companies. He proclaimed a ‘Bolivarian revolution,’ named for the hero of Latin American independence, and proclaimed the United States to be a threat, in part because of its indirect support for a coup that briefly ousted him in 2002.”

 Radonski is Chavez’s main challenger in the Sunday election, though there are four additional candidates from different parties. Polls differ as to who is likely to win—some report that it’s a tight contest while others give Chávez a double-digit lead.

Venezuelans living in the U.S., the majority of whom live in the Miami area, must travel to New Orleans to vote. Earlier this year, Chavez’s government closed its consulate in Miami after the U.S. State Department expelled its consul, Livia Acosta, “amid an investigation into recordings that seemed to implicate her in an Iranian plot for a cyber-attack against the United States,” according to the Associated Press. “The closure affected nearly 20,000 Venezuelan voters in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina who had registered to vote at the Miami consulate.”

In the final chapter of Hugo Chavez: Leader of Venezuela, Young writes, “Chávez has often said that he would like to remain in power till 2021.” That may be wishful thinking, though, even if Chávez wins re-election. In June 2011, Chávez disclosed that he had cancer. After two operations in Cuba and months of chemotherapy and radiation, he claims to be cured, but in February 2012 he announced that the cancer had recurred.

 Whatever the election result, the big question for outside observers is whether U.S.-Venezuelan relations will change or remain the same. Although the tension with the South American nation is not the most prominent foreign policy challenge the U.S. faces, as the explusion of the consulate in Miami reveals it is an ongoing and potentially dangerous one.

Sharon F. Doorasamy

Managing Editor

 To learn more about Venezuela’s controversial president, check out Hugo Chavez: Leader of Venezuela. (ISBN: 978-1-59935-068-4)

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Published in: on October 4, 2012 at 12:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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