Watching Colombia's presidential race, I can't help wondering whether Colombian candidates, in the heat of the campaign, won't say something that will give embattled Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez a much-needed excuse to cancel Venezuela's September legislative elections.
Consider what's happening in South America's northern tier. Colombia is preparing to hold presidential elections on May 30 to choose a successor to President Alvaro Uribe, who is hugely popular in the country for his crackdown on Marxist guerrillas, and his public denunciations of Chávez's secret support for them.
In that context, Colombia's election may turn into a competition to see which of the candidates will come across as the closest follower of Uribe's policies.
Right now, Uribe's party candidate, former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, is way ahead in the polls with 36 percent of the vote, followed by Conservative Party candidate Noemí Sanín with 17 percent.
Santos was the hard-line defense minister who led the rescue of former Sen. Ingrid Betancourt and the three American contractors from their guerrilla captors in 2008.
He also led that year's army attack on a FARC rebel camp in neighboring Ecuador, which led to the discovery of rebel laptop computers with thousands of e-mails that were later certified as authentic by Interpol. The e-mails showed Venezuela's active support for the Colombian guerrillas.
When I asked Santos in an interview in Miami what he would change from Uribe's foreign policy -- especially regarding Chávez -- if he won, he responded that he would be more "pro-active."
"Our diplomacy has been very passive. We need to have a more pro-active diplomacy, better inserting the country in the international scene, where we believe to have many attributes to become a player," he said.
Until now, Colombia has been on the defensive internationally, because for many years it was depicted in the news as one of the world's countries with the highest kidnapping, murder and drug-trafficking rates. But that's no longer the case, and Colombia's diplomacy should change accordingly, he said.
Asked about Chávez, he said that "Mr. Chávez and I are like oil and water. But if there is respect, and respect for our differences, we can have good relations. And I think that's our duty, because when leaders fight, it's the people who suffer."
Isn't there a danger that in the heat of Colombia's campaign, you and your rivals will escalate your rhetoric regarding Chávez, and that will lead to a new rise in tensions between the two countries? I asked.
"I would hope not," Santos said. "I hope our democracy will be mature enough to avoid using foreign policy as a domestic political campaign tool. That would be irresponsible. As far as I'm concerned, rest assured that despite the fact that they say that I'm the anti-Chávez ogre, there won't be any use of that for political campaigning."
My opinion: Santos may be sincere in saying that he won't use anti-Chávez rhetoric for political gain at home. But several of his rivals will need to win part of the Uribe vote and may do so, leading him not to play that game.
On the other side, Chávez is rapidly losing support in Venezuela, as oil prices have gone down and he can no longer overcome his government's extreme incompetence and corruption with massive cash hand-outs. An Hinterlaces poll conducted in March shows that 66 percent of Venezuelans would like Chávez to leave power by the end of his term in 2012, or before.
Not surprisingly, Chávez in recent weeks has stepped up his rhetoric about alleged plots to kill him or oust him by Venezuela's opposition. It's very possible that, after losing a referendum to introduce full-blown socialism in 2007, Chávez will not risk losing his current absolute control of Congress, and may seek to cancel the September elections.
Even if Santos and the other Colombian candidates avoid saying anything that could be used by Chávez as an excuse to advance his totalitarian project, Chávez will probably say something to provoke a strong reaction from Colombia's candidates, or create an incident in hopes of finding an excuse to put off the legislative elections indefinitely.
Either way, if Colombian candidates don't watch their words, they may inadvertently help Chávez do away with the last vestiges of democracy in Venezuela.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.