Capriles seeks to capitalise on disillusionment with Chávez


Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate has the momentum to win on Sunday, writes TOM HENNIGANin Caracas

IT IS disappointed former supporters of Hugo Chávez such as Deyjamira Hernandez that has Venezuela’s opposition believing it can win Sunday’s presidential election.

Back in 1998 the sales assistant from one of Caracas’s slums voted for candidate Chávez believing he offered a change from the mismanagement and corruption of the country’s traditional democratic parties. But now, after 13 years of president Chávez, she says she is desperate for a change.

“He had some good ideas originally but things are getting worse,” she says. “I feel deceived. Life has not got any better in our neighbourhood and in many ways it is a lot worse. The lack of security is horrible.”

Following an explosion of violent crime in the last five years, Venezuela now has the fourth highest homicide rate in the world and the highest homicide rate in south America, according to the Criminal Science Institute at the Central University of Venezuela. Much of this violence is concentrated in poorer neighbourhoods, undermining confidence in Chávez’s administration in the very communities that have benefited most from his social programmes.

Attracted by his promises to tackle the problem, Hernandez says she will be voting for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles on Sunday. Though behind in most polls, the former governor of Miranda state has the momentum going into the election, emerging from the campaign as the first significant electoral threat to Chávez since he came to power.

As the race has tightened, a nasty campaign – during which Capriles rallies have been attacked by chavistas – has turned deadly. Three people were killed in a confrontation between two sets of supporters at the weekend.

Chávez has warned of a possible civil war should he lose. If the result of Sunday’s vote is close or disputed by either side, attention will shift to the military. Chávez has frequently declared that the armed forces are “chavista”, leading many in the opposition to worry that they could back the president if he refused to accept defeat.

The man seeking to beat him is a lawyer from a wealthy Caracas family, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Born into the country’s business elite, Capriles cannot claim to be a man of the people in the same way as his rival – the provincial son of two schoolteachers. And, like most politicians, Capriles lacks the president’s magnetic charisma and skills as a communicator.

But, rather than try to hide such weaknesses, he has sought to turn them to his advantage. While Chávez has indulged his taste for histrionic rhetoric during the campaign, comparing his movement to “the good news of Christ”, Capriles has poked fun at his opponent’s manifesto, which promises to save the planet: “And where is the planning for health, education, jobs?”

Rather than promising to bring “equilibrium to the universe”, Capriles has instead focused on what he will do in the first 100 days of his presidency to end electricity blackouts and tackle the inflation and rising violence that have convinced many that the president’s Bolivarian Revolution has lost its way.

But he has also sought to reassure poorer voters with promises to retain Chávez’s popular social programmes and says he will adopt the “Lula model”, referring to the successful mix of social and business policies of Brazil’s former left-wing president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Chávez has labelled his opponent “a little rich kid dressing up as poor” and his campaign has published what it claims is a secret austerity programme Capriles will implement if he wins. Capriles denies there is any such plan but has made headway in the polls criticising Chávez’s economic mismanagement amid ballooning public spending.

Unlike other oil producers which have piled up reserves during the last decade of high oil prices, Venezuela has, despite the oil bonanza, become increasingly indebted. When Chávez came to power the debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 32 per cent. Now it is more than 70 per cent as Chávez has boosted public spending by as much as 30 per cent in the run-up to the election.

There are signs that the government is beginning to struggle for cash. The state oil company, PDVSA, which funds most of Chávez’s projects, has been unable to put up the financing for its share of a refinery in Brazil that was meant to symbolise a new era of Latin American co-operation and development.

As well as lambasting economic incompetence, Capriles has also accused Chávez of “rewarding the corrupt” hoping to benefit from the growing perception that senior members of the Chávez administration have grown rich in power while others are involved in arms and drug trafficking, protected by courts that do the executive’s bidding.

But last month Capriles was forced to fire an opposition deputy working on his campaign after a video emerged of him receiving bundles of money from a businessman. The video was shown on the relentlessly pro-Chávez state television network and revived questions about some of Capriles’s backers, who include members of the corrupt elite swept from power by Chávez in 1998.

Playing on fears that behind the young, presentable face of Capriles lurks the discredited old system, Chávez has referred to his opponent as a member of the old “oligarchy” he promises to “sweep away” finally on Sunday.

But Capriles has one built-in advantage when it comes to presenting himself as a new man: he is just 40 years of age, 18 younger than a president approaching his 14th anniversary in office and seeking six more.

And though he has not sought to make any political capital from Chávez’s battle with cancer, his relentless canvassing in small towns and villages across the country has drawn a stark contrast with the erratic campaign by the president, who has missed some campaign events and turned down the chance to speak at others, continuing fears that his health is not as good as he claims.

But if Capriles is campaigning harder than his opponent it is because he has to. “Support for Chávez personally is much stronger than for his revolution. The hard-core chavista vote is stronger than the hard-core anti-chavista one,” says respected local pollster Luis Vicente Leon. “Capriles is by far the best candidate the opposition has produced against the president but he knows that to win he will have to win it vote by vote.”

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