Latin America’s Tale of Two Crises

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.