Given the protracted battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for the White House, it is almost understandable that many U.S. residents paid little heed to the other major presidential election in the Americas this fall. That one pitted incumbent Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez against Henrique Capriles Radonski. Chavez's victory earlier this week, though, requires attention from U.S. policymakers.
Chavez has plagued the United States since he first was elected in 1998. Normally, the leader of a relatively small South American nation wouldn't have much impact on the United States. Chavez is different. Venezuela has the globe's largest proven oil reserves and is a major exporter of petroleum. That provides him with a very public stage.
The Venezuelan isn't shy about using it. He's challenged U.S. policies by supporting anti-U.S. political campaigns in Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia. He's provided aid to left-wing Colombian guerillas and he almost single-handedly props up Cuba's communist government. He does all that while proclaiming that he is democratically elected. Technically that is true because Venezuela has free elections. In reality, Chavez is an autocrat.
He wins votes by lavishly spending oil revenues to subsidize food, fuel and housing for most Venezuelans, Even so, his margin of victory was smaller than in the past. There's reason for that. Despite the lavish spending, many Venezuelans remain desperately poor and the economy is a mess. Moreover, life in Venezuela is scary. It has one of the world's highest murder rates -- far above that in Mexico, wrongly viewed as the murder capital of the hemisphere. Other crime, especially corruption, is rampant as well.
Sunday's election means Chavez will hold power for another six years, unless his health fails. That's a possibility. He's reportedly had two major surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy to treat cancer. Destabilizing as a healthy Chavez has been, it's possible that his demise could make the political-diplomatic situation in the Western Hemisphere even more difficult.
Filling the vacuum left by an ill or departed Chavez could prompt domestic upheaval and perhaps worse. That in turn could affect oil exports, a prospect that rightly concerns the United States, a major importer of Venezuelan oil, and a world that needs oil to prime its economy.
Chavez's election creates a dilemma for U.S. diplomats. Paying attention to him encourages him to act out. Ignoring him could lead to undesirable consequences. A wiser course is to pay enough notice to protect U.S. interests, but not so much that it gives him a greater sense of self-importance and power.