MEXICO CITY – If one were an irredeemable optimist, upcoming events in Venezuela and Colombia could be viewed as a harbinger of good things to come. In Venezuela, the October 7 presidential election may put an end to Hugo Chávez’s 14 years in power, along with his systematic destruction of the economy, media clampdowns, and endless meddling in other countries’ affairs. In Colombia, peace talks scheduled for October 8 in Norway between President Juan Manuel Santos’s government and the FARC guerrillas may bring an end to 40 years of war and bloodshed.
Unfortunately, neither of these outcomes is likely. In both cases, what seems desirable appears highly improbable.
Chávez has participated directly in four Venezuelan elections: in 1998, when he was elected for the first time; in 2004, when the opposition forced a recall vote; in 2006, when he was re-elected; and now, as he recovers from cancer and the country is in the midst of a huge public-safety crisis that has made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Chávez won the first three, and, for several reasons, seems poised to win again.
For starters, Chávez is a formidable campaigner, and he has at his disposal every available lever of state power, from the Electoral Council to PDVSA, the national oil company. As skillful as Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition candidate, may be, the playing field is so uneven that he appears to stand little chance. One example: Venezuela’s overall population has grown 14% over the past 13 years, but electoral rolls have jumped 53%; the new voters can be ghosts, Colombians, or several generations of chavista supporters already registered to vote, even before they are born.
Most polls give Chávez a significant advantage (of up to 15 percentage points), but nonetheless offer a glimmer of hope to the opposition. Many of the more impartial polling firms, such as Luis Christiansen’s Consultores 21, Varianzas, and Keller, all show a surprisingly large proportion of undecided voters – those who do not answer or do not know for whom they will vote.
In highly polarized and politicized Venezuela, it is unlikely that upward of 20% of voters have yet to decide what they will do. Consequently, some analysts suspect a “hidden opposition vote,” such as occurred in Nicaragua in 1990, when Violeta Chamorrro won the presidency, or in Mexico in 2000, when Vicente Fox emerged victorious. According to this logic, the “undecided” are actually leaning toward Capriles, and if their number is larger than Chávez’s margin in the polls, the caudillo will lose.
That is not impossible, but it is unlikely, especially if Chávez can count on several percentage points of tampered votes before and after the polling booths close. Despite the president’s illness, the enormous problems facing Venezuela, and fatigue after 13 years of chavismo, it is still Chávez’s election to lose.
The status quo will also likely persist in Colombia. No one knows exactly when Santos decided to seek new negotiations with Latin America’s oldest – and one of its most vicious – guerrilla groups; nor do any but his closest aides know how many meetings have already taken place, where and when, or what happened. But much evidence suggests that most of the process began some time ago, and was meant to be kept secret until broad agreement had been reached on most of the outstanding issues.
Santos probably wanted to have the talks viewed as a relatively unconditional surrender and disarmament by the “narco-guerrillas.” He would have wanted to avoid the grandstanding and propaganda generally associated with public negotiations. So the talks may have been revealed not because they had advanced sufficiently, but because someone wanted to sabotage them. Who could that be?
The predictable suspect is former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe. Although Santos was both Uribe’s defense minister and preferred successor, relations between the two have soured. The bottom line is that Uribe thought Santos would do his bidding as president, and Santos is convinced that his (high but declining) popularity is of his own making, not borrowed from Uribe.
These strains express themselves on policy issues. Uribe criticizes Santos – through up to 40 tweets per day to his more than one million followers – for repudiating his “democratic security” stance, for the growth of the “Bacrim” (petty-crime gangs), for appeasing Colombia’s two hostile neighbors, Venezuela and Ecuador, and for prosecuting some of his aides on corruption charges.
Santos says nothing, but replies in kind: making peace with Chávez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, prosecuting human rights violations under Uribe, and arresting several of his allegedly corrupt officials. And now, seemingly out of the blue, he has defied and even offended Uribe by undertaking negotiations with the despised FARC, after having delivered such devastating military blows to them that perhaps, this time around, the peace process will prosper.
One can see why Uribe would threaten to leak news about the negotiations, as well as why Santos would try to preempt the leaks by going public and having them take place in the open (the talks will begin in Oslo, but will be pursued in Havana). The problem is that, although there are good examples of publicized – if not public – peace talks that have succeeded, there are more instances of failure or indefinite stalemate, owing to the pressure of working under the glare of the international spotlight.
As a fervent supporter of Santos’s human-rights efforts, of his call for a major debate on drug legalization, and of his attempt to end Colombia’s “Forty Years’ War,” I fear that Uribe has fatally wounded the peace process, and will prolong the country’s bloody and fruitless status quo indefinitely. That is a great pity.
So, in this tale of two South American neighbors, unfortunately, little will change – unless, as so often happens, the unexpected suddenly becomes inevitable, in which case all bets are off.