BOSTON — Much attention has turned again to Venezuela ahead of its April 14 presidential election, but it isn’t the only Latin American country gearing up for a critical vote this year.
Several nations in the Americas will head to polls in 2013 to choose a leader, with some predicted to swing left and others right.
Here’s what to watch in the coming weeks and months.
April 14: Venezuela's voodoo vote
It seems like yesterday Venezuela was embroiled in a bitter campaign. That was October. After that election winner, Hugo Chavez, died last month, officials called a snap election for April 14.
To think, if it were the United States, then-Vice President Nicolas Maduro would serve out the president’s six-year term.
Instead, Maduro, who became acting president after "el Comandante" died (some say before), is running against Henrique Capriles, the same youthful candidate who gave Chavez his toughest race in 14 years of rule.
Though campaigning officially began last week, the political rallying and mudslinging had already started some time before — some say as far back as Chavez’s March 8 funeral.
The mud turned toxic last week when Maduro labeled the opposition “heirs of Hitler.”
Then it all went a little voodoo. The interim president invoked an old Venezuelan curse on voters who plan to opt for the opposition.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, is widely predicted to win, according to polls that give him a double-digit lead.
Capriles, a popular state governor, is not just up against him, but he also faces what media are calling the “ghost of Chavez,” and maybe even Chavez’s pseudo-prophetic spirit as well.
"All of the prophecies of Hugo Chavez, the prophet of Christ on this Earth, have come true," Maduro said at a recent rally.
April 21: Paraguay, post-impeachment
Yet another South American country needs to fill the top post held by an interim president — but not due to the death of the executive.
Paraguay, a landlocked South American country of fewer than 6.6 million, has been living an uneasy interim since last June, when its congress impeached left-leaning President Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop.
Lugo was succeeded by his vice president, Federico Franco, who had turned against him.
At stake is the future of Paraguay’s standing among its powerful neighbors, including its largest trading partner, Brazil.
While the deposed President Lugo made many political enemies at home, he didn’t lack for friends abroad. So, quickly after his ouster, leaders sympathetic to Lugo retaliated by ousting Paraguay from important leagues of South American nations, Mercosur and Unasur.
The United States, Canada and other countries voted to keep Paraguay on board in the Organization of American States, which has its headquarters in Washington, DC.
But in January, South America snubbed Paraguay once more. Paraguay’s acting President Franco claimed the country wasn’t invited to a high-profile summit in Chile of heads of state from Europe and the Americas.
Besides the region’s disdain, a shocking fatality also casts a shadow over Paraguay’s April 21 vote. Candidate Lino Oviedo, who helped lead the 1989 coup to overthrow Paraguay’s dictatorship, died in February in a helicopter crash.
Whatever the result of this month’s election — contrary to leftward Venezuela — Paraguay looks set to swing back to the right.
Horacio Cartes, a candidate Reuters describes as a millionaire businessman and political newcomer from the rightist Colorado Party, leads the polls. His main rival, Efrain Alegre, is running on the ticket of the center-right Liberal Party.
GlobalPost On Location video: The dark side of Paraguay’s agricultural boom
Looking ahead, two more Latin American elections are scheduled in November this year, in Chile and Honduras.
Nov. 17: Chile's Bachelet is back
Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s first female president from 2006 to 2010, is running for her country’s top office again.
She had been living in New York to head a United Nations global women’s rights agency, UN Women, but, in March, returned to Santiago to announce her candidacy for president.
Bachelet’s expected to sweep primaries in June as her center-left party’s best chance of seizing power back from the conservatives, who took office after she left.
Chilean law bars the incumbent president, billionaire Sebastian Pinera, from seeking a new consecutive term — and that seems fortunate for his party. Pinera is struggling to lift a measly 38 percent approval rating, making him what The Associated Press reported as the most unpopular president since Chile transitioned from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship to democracy in 1990.
By contrast, Bachelet ended her presidency with 80 percent approval.
However, the long race to November also will test Chileans’ fondness for her party, Concertacion, which ran the Andean country for two decades.
An analysis by political risk consultants Eurasia Group says fatigue with the past means Bachelet could see some competition from a progressive party candidate who obtained 20 percent of the vote in the 2009 election.
Nov. 30: Honduras' three parties a crowd
Honduras’ elections present a marked shift in the Central American country’s politics: the end of bipartisanship.
Its two-party system split wide open in 2009 when the military kicked out President Manuel Zelaya in his pajamas.
The polarizing, mustachioed Zelaya is not on the ticket this year, but his wife Xiomara Castro is. She looks like the candidate to beat.
Castro’s fresh, left-of-center third option — the Partido Libre (Free Party) — poses a serious threat to the two old conservative parties.
But the country’s outlook is bleak, says Eurasia Group. Its budget deficit could hit 6 percent of gross domestic product, and Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s ratings agencies put its credit on negative watch.
Honduras also has a serious drug problem. On an isthmus wedged between South American cocaine producers and Mexico, it’s been the stage for narcotics traffic and drug war battling, including a controversial intervention by US Special Forces.
One of the poorest countries in the Americas, Honduras also has one of the world’s highest murder rates.
And the police are a big part of the problem, as GlobalPost's Nick Miroff reported in 2011.
Recently, in Time magazine, Nicaragua-based journalist Tim Rogers wrote:
In Honduras, which gets $36 million of the $85 million in annual US aid for anti-drug efforts in Central America, rampant corruption has led the US to bypass the normal chain of police command to work with specialized units of agents.... [Washington] refuses to work with Honduran Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla, whom US officials are investigating for extrajudicial killings and other accusations ofrights abuses, and 20 top police commissioners under his command.
No doubt, whoever wins in November will have a heavy burden to bear.