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Latin America

Is Venezuela headed for foreign policy shift?

Hugo Chavez's rival in the tense Venezuelan election has promised a huge shift in the country's foreign policy. Henrique Capriles wants to "re-think" close ties with Russia and Iran. But is the policy a risk?

Venezuela's opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles talks to supporters during a campaign rally in Valencia, in the state of Carabobo, some 180km (112 miles) west of Caracas September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Venezuela Präsidentschaftskandidat Henrique Capriles

It's been a fractious - and occasionally violent - campaign with just a few days to go to the Venezuelan presidential election on Sunday and challenger Henrique Capriles is closing the gap on an ailing President Hugo Chavez.

Capriles upped the ante at a recent campaign stop, playing to his core supporters with some aggressive rhetoric about the incumbent's foreign policy. Essentially, he promised more pragmatism and less ideology.

"The foreign policy of this government is driven by politics - to extend a revolution worldwide. My objective with regards to foreign relations is to benefit all Venezuelans," he said. "We are interested in countries that have democracies, that respect human rights, that we have an affinity with."

The 40-year-old made sure to touch one of Chavez's sore points - relations with autocratic governments, particularly Iran, with whom Chavez has developed an elaborate political and technological cooperation - winning President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's praise and gratitude several times.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez waves at supporters during a campaign rally in Guarenas in the state of Miranda September 29, 2012. Chavez is seeking re-election in an October 7 presidential vote. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

It's become a tougher election than Chavez would have liked

"What do we have in common with Iran apart from producing oil? Or Belarus?" Capriles countered. "Isn't its president a dictator? You tell me! We honored [late Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi twice. Are those the relations Venezuelans want? No!"

Exporting revolution?

Chavez has also established close ties with Russia, a friendship underlined recently when President Vladimir Putin presented the Venezuelan leader with a Russian terrier puppy. This is another plug that Capriles intends to pull. "We have spent more than $14 billion (10.9 billion euros) on arms purchases from Russia," he said. "I am not going to buy more weapons. I think the policy has been mistaken."

But for all the talk of seismic shifts - perhaps intended to make Venezuela a more palatable option for businesses around the world - analysts caution against making too much of Capriles' campaign speeches - particularly his dismissal of Chavez's foreign policy as extending "a revolution worldwide."

"There is no revolution in Venezuela - they do not have any revolution to extend worldwide," Ana Soliz Landivar, research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies, told Deutsche Welle.

Victor Bulmer-Thomas, associate fellow at Britain's Chatham House think tank, agrees that this was little more than a provocative slogan to please the more partisan of his own supporters. "It's really preaching to the converted. This is not how Chavez is seen by Venezuela's neighbors," he told DW. "Talking about revising the relationship with Iran will play very well with his base and won't bother Chavez's supporters that much."

A handout photo provided by Miraflores Press, shows Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) talking to media during the signing of bilateral agreements in Teheran, Iran, 06 September 2009. EPA/MIRAFLORES PRESS/HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY +++(c) dpa - Report+++ 
dpa 15558661

The Iranian president once called Chavez 'a brother and a trench mate'

Annoying the US

Bulmer-Thomas also downplays the importance of Chavez's relations with Iran in the context of Venezuela's economy. "He is an anti-US imperialist, and so on the grounds that my enemy's enemy is my friend, it makes a lot of sense to reach out to Iran," he said. "That annoys the US, but it is not as important as others have made out. You could say it's not very pragmatic, but it's not hugely costly either."

In fact, talking about Iran is a safe tactic for Capriles. "The relationship with Iran is of no huge importance to the roughly 50 percent who support Chavez, and is a source of great embarrassment to the 50 percent who oppose him, so ending that relationship won't be an issue if Capriles wins the election," said Bulmer-Thomas.

The same goes for relations with Russia. "Were Capriles to win and to reverse relations with Russia, it doesn't do a huge amount of damage to either Venezuela's image or economy," says Bulmer-Thomas. "It's very different, for example, from Cuba reaching out to the Soviet Union in the 1960s. When that relationship ended it was extremely damaging to Cuba."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez talk during their meeting in Moscow's Kremlin on Friday, Nov. 26, 2004. Chavez and Putin were set Friday to discuss energy cooperation between their countries, two of the world's largest oil suppliers, and military trade, Russian news agencies reported. (AP Photo/ Mikhail Metzel )

Chavez cozied up to Russia, and received a pet dog in return

Revising deals?

In any case, Landivar points out that should Capriles come to power, he cannot simply "re-assess" Venezuela's trade agreements. "The government of Chavez used the mechanism of Fondo Pesado, which means that Venezuela has already received the payments for the oil exports for the future," she said.

And as for the Russian weapons deals, stopping this is not likely to have much economic impact either. "Commercial exchange between Venezuela and Russia in general is not relevant in numbers," said Landivar.

Bulmer-Thomas agrees. "The main link is the importing of weapons," he said. "Well, sadly there are only too many countries who'd be happy to sell Venezuela weapons if it wanted them."

"The fact remains that Venezuela's principal export is energy, and its most important market is the US," he told DW. "It's interesting Capriles didn't talk about renegotiating contracts with China, which of course is an importer of Venezuelan energy, so that's likely to remain a much important country economically speaking."

In fact, Capriles himself dampened his own bluster on Iran and Russia to make assurances that the relationship with China would remain in tact. After all, as he said, "everyone deals with China."

DW.DE