March 20, 2012
When Patrick Duddy, the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, thinks about the ailing Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, he is reminded of the 1961 epic El Cid. In the climatic finish, a dead hero's men, fearing they cannot defeat North African invaders without him, secure his corpse upon his horse, and send it onto the battlefield in order to intimidate their enemies. Sure enough, the dead El Cid's Castillian army goes on to final victory.
With seven months to go until October presidential elections, Chávez returned to Caracas over the weekend after a second cancer operation in Havana. Chávez's health has thrown the election into disarray, raising questions about what will happen not only in Venezuela should he be incapacitated, but in the country's projection of influence around the region. Until 2008, Chávez, fueled by the income of some 2.5 million barrels of oil exports a day, provided hundreds of millions of dollars of support for Colombia's hyper-violent rebel opposition FARC movement. Venezuela also was a key to cocaine smuggling. Meanwhile, Chávez has had a tense relationship with foreign oil companies during his 13 years of power, sometimes nationalizing their fields, or unilaterally changing contractual terms. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips left the country.
On arriving home, Chávez sang and danced with his daughter on a balcony, a demonstration of rigor intended to dispel talk that, despite chemotherapy he is to undergo, he is not up to the challenge of a tough campaign. "The beating we're going to give the Venezuelan right will be memorable ... not just in the history of Venezuela but in almost all the world," Reuters quoted Chávez as telling the crowd.
Duddy is sure of only one thing: that, whether or not Chávez is healthy, he will in fact appear as the ruling candidate for president on October 7. There simply is no serious alternative in the chavista camp to face the popular opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski. And there is too much at stake in the way of power and wealth to leave victory to chance.