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Venezuelan elections arrive in New Orleans, here’s hoping for an upset: James Varney

Given the overheated claims of crimped democracy that surround topics like voter ID laws in the United States, it will be interesting to see the fight against the genuine article this weekend in New Orleans.

Director Oliver Stone, left, and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, center, talk to reporters in an image from the documentary ‘South of the Border.’ Mike Scott, movie critic

Thousands of Venezuelans are trekking to New Orleans to participate in their country’s election Sunday, an odyssey chronicled by Ramon Antonio Vargas at The immediate spectacle highlights the best of Latin America, while their situation speaks of one of that region’s worst aspects: the infamous caudillo.

In recent years, the Left has regained pockets of power in Latin America and in most cases through fair elections. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez fits that bill, as he won in 1998 and then sought and gained public approval for the constitutional changes that now prolong his tenure. He won re-election in 2006, albeit in a vote widely boycotted by opposing parties and candidates. So why does he feel so illegitimate and why are more than 90 percent of those voting Sunday in New Orleans expected to cast ballots against him?

Because Chavez is a gross dictator pretending, as they often do, to be a savior.

When I filed a dispatch from Caracas in 2002 it appeared Chavez’s days were numbered. The public outcry against his transparently bogus populism had reached a crescendo, because his so-called wealth redistribution, like all similar calls through history, rang hollow, and he was launching what would be an ultimately successful attempt to control the country’s vast petroleum wealth. More than a half a million marched through the capital city demanding his departure that February.

henrique-capriles.jpg Henrique Capriles Radonski, Hugo Chavez’s opponent in the Venezuelan president’s race. Associated Press

But Chavez held on, aided in part by a short lived and inept putsch that made him seem more like a victim than a gangster. Now, with his fists clenched on the levers of power, he appears poised to win another six-year term.

Most of those taking the time and spending the money to come vote in New Orleans know a Chavez victory is likely even if his campaign didn’t benefit from the active support of luminaries like Sean Penn. Many voters may even complain Chavez has rigged the electoral deck though that charge may not be valid. I’ve no doubt he would do whatever he could (and he can) to insure he wins, but it looks like Chavez – having intimidated much of the electorate, consolidated his control over the military, pushed through policies that hastened the departure of much intellect and talent, and used his expropriated media tools to celebrate his clownish antics on the world stage – will win.

That doesn’t mean he should, though. It doesn’t mean the deep opposition to him from the hard working and most successful Venezuelans should be dismissed as mere wealth preservation from the nation’s fat cats (or “rats,” to use Chavez’s term of endearment).

It does mean, however, New Orleans should take a moment to appreciate people making a genuine, heart-felt effort to speak out against a regime whose suppression only begins at the polling station.

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