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Political Unrest in Venezuela : Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 16
Photo: Venezuela Upcoming Elections
In the coming months, Venezuela could experience significant political unrest and violence that lead to the further curtailment of democracy in the country. Presidential elections are scheduled to take place on October 7, 2012. President Hugo Chavez is in the midst of a tough reelection campaign against Henrique Capriles Radonski—the young and energetic governor of the state of Miranda—who enjoys multiparty support and appears to have a better chance of defeating the incumbent than earlier challengers.
Over the course of the past year, Chavez and several of his most senior associates have asserted that there will be instability and violence if he is not reelected. At the same time, Chavez is battling cancer, but he has shared little information with the public about the state of his health beyond the fact that he has twice been treated for the disease since spring 2011. Speculation about Chavez’s health problems has generated considerable uncertainty among his supporters, especially since he has not anointed a successor. Should Chavez appear to be losing the election, die suddenly, or withdraw from public life for health reasons, tensions are likely to rise in Venezuela, especially if the public suspects that Chavez has used extra-constitutional means to preclude or invalidate an opposition victory in order to sustain his regime’s hold on power. Protests over such actions, which could turn violent, may in turn lead to the imposition of martial law and the further curtailment of democratic rights in Venezuela. This would almost certainly trigger a major political crisis in the Western Hemisphere that pits countries seeking to restore democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela—including the United States—against those who support Chavez and the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Longstanding U.S. efforts to promote good governance in Latin America as well as cooperation on a range of political, economic, and security challenges in the region would be threatened as a consequence.
Accordingly, the United States should seek free and fair elections in Venezuela. If Chavez or a replacement candidate is defeated, it should offer to help promote an orderly, peaceful transition. If Chavez is reelected in a process judged acceptably free and fair, the United States should seek to reset the bilateral relationship with an eye toward the eventual renewal of high-level communication on areas of mutual interest. If the election results appear fraudulent or apparently legitimate results are nullified, the United States should encourage international pressure to restore democracy and suspend bilateral business as usual until a legitimate government is restored.