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How Hugo Chavez Could Help Mitt Romney Win the Election

With pundits rushing to file their Romney campaign obits ahead of the rush, the general consensus is that only a big time October surprise can save the GOP now. And while pundits generally look to the Middle East for likely sources of race-scrambling shocks, this year’s black swan could well fly in from the South, instead.

By a quirk of fate, Venezuelans go to the polls to pick a president exactly 30 days before Americans do this year. Fourteen years into his term of office, an ailing Hugo Chávez faces his most competitive race yet, against an opposition united behind Henrique Capriles, a popular young state governor running a lean, focused campaign. Though Venezuelan polling is all over the place, some of the better ones now show a very close race, and the momentum is unmistakably on Capriles’ side. But that begs the question, would Hugo Chávez go quietly?

There are good reasons to think he wouldn’t. Obsessed with countering a European-style “color revolution” Chávez has gone to elaborate extremes to give himself options in case he loses the election. A close Iranian ally, Chávez has stuck by the Bashar al Assad regime through thick and thin over the last 18 months supplying diesel and diplomatic cover and seeming to relish its capacity to resist democratic mobilization. As this Council on Foreign Relations Contingency Planning Memo stresses Chávez has created a well-armed civilian militia that operates outside the formal military chain of command, and answering only to him. Some observers are convinced it’s patterned explicitly Iran’s Basij militia whose success in putting down the Green Movement of 2009 Chávez unquestionably admires. Chillingly, he’s explicitly warned of civil war on more than one occasion should the opposition threaten his hold on power.

Were this happening anywhere else in Latin America, U.S. pols could be foregiven for sleeping through it. But Venezuela remains a major oil exporter and the fourth largest supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. behind only Saudi Arabia and its Northern and Southern Neighbors. A spasm of violence and instability following a Chávez defeat would have immediate repercussions on world oil markets, and such shocks make themselves felt in U.S. swing voters’ pocketbooks immediately and painfully, through a mechanism that conveniently doubles as a G.O.P. talking point: the gas pump. 

With just six weeks to go, Mitt Romney needs a miracle to turn around a failing campaign. Hugo Chávez might be about to hand him one on a plate. 

Francisco Toro blogs about the Chávez Era at