When Patrick Duddy, the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, thinks about the ailing Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, 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, Chavez returned to Caracas over the weekend after a second cancer operation in Havana. Chavez'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, Chavez, 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, Chavez 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, Chavez sang and danced with his daughter on a balcony (pictured above), 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 Chavez as telling the crowd.
Duddy is sure of only one thing -- that, whether or not Chavez is healthy, he will in fact appear as the ruling candidate for president on Oct. 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.
"I think they're going to try to stick with Chavez to the very end," Duddy told me. "And they think [they will triumph] through a combination of aggressive spending on the social program, incessant election publicity. They dominate the [broadcast media]. They have immense resources. They're going to put those resources to use in the serve of the president's campaign for re-election."
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Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's disclosure that his cancer has recurred raises hard questions about his ability to campaign for re-election in October. If he lacks the stamina or is incapacitated, what happens next -- will fair elections proceed, or will his ruling circle frustrate any potential transfer of power?
In short, if there is new leadership, can one imagine a shift in which Venezuela stops using its oil wealth to support a violent Colombian guerrilla movement? And will Venezuela lift constraints on oil production, and become a tipping point in the fast-changing geopolitics of oil?
The evidence to date is that Chavez, who has led Venezuela for 13 years, has prepared a tough strategy "to defend the revolution," says Stephen Johnson, director of the America's Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The most recent datapoint came Monday, when a congressman's son was injured in a shooting by red-shirted Chavez supporters at a rally for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski.
The 39-year-old Radonski (pictured above), who is governor of Miranda state, appears to represent a serious popular threat to Chavez. He was elected as the united opposition candidate by a resounding majority last month. Among his platforms is a new day for the Venezuelan economy, fueled by a modern export oil industry pumping out far more crude.
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If Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is forced to drop his bid for re-election for health reasons, will the primary repercussion for the West be the exit of a voluble thorn in the side? Perhaps, but it will also mean the prospect of yet more newly available oil reserves -- on top of the widely projected U.S. shale oil bonanza. The takeaway: If the shale oil projections are accurate, and Chavez leaves politics under whatever scenario, we have the prospect of a geopolitical shakeup analogous to what has accompanied the rise of shale gas.
Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves on the planet -- 296 billion barrels, according to OPEC figures. The number is slightly misleading: Saudi Arabia's 264 billion barrels are higher quality and cheaper to produce than the extremely heavy crude of Venezuela's Orinoco Basin; yet Venezuela's reserves are so massive that such details almost don't matter.
The trouble has been that, since Chavez took power 13 years ago, Venezuela's oil production has fallen to 3 million barrels a day, 16 percent less than the 3.5 million barrels a day it produced in the 1990s. This has resulted from Chavez forcing out key members of the skilled labor force and management of the state oil company, known as PDVSA, and his marginalizing of the other source of oil patch expertise -- foreign oil companies such as Chevron and Shell.
Yesterday however, Chavez said his cancer may have recurred, reports the Associated Press -- he must go to Cuba for further treatment and scale back his frenetic pace. That bodes ominous for his attempt to hold back a groundswell of apparent support for Henrique Capriles (pictured above), his 39-year-old opponent in October elections. What distinguishes Venezuela from some other petro-states -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Iran among them -- is that power can actually change hands through the ballot box. So even though polls show Chavez with sustained popularity, he still must win. Capriles already was a serious challenger, and now he is more so.
Capriles has already said that, if elected, he will boost oil production. He also has suggested that foreign expertise will be permitted back into the country.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.