By Nick OlleJune 17, 2012
This week Venezuela's two presidential hopefuls — incumbent Hugo Chavez and challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski — formally registered their candidacy. The Global Mail recently travelled to Venezuela to meet Mr Capriles, who already has been campaigning for months.
Twelve thousand frenzied supporters erupt as their man enters the arena. Sporting his country's vino tinto (red wine) football colours, he high-fives the front row and applauds the enraptured crowd as it moves in waves, grooving to a pop song lionising their hero, blasting on the sound system.
The venue is the Domo Bolivariano sports arena in Venezuela's fourth city, Barquisimeto. The sport? Politics.
Hoping for the next Hugo Chavez
The object of the hysteria is Henrique Capriles Radonski. Befitting of the setting, he actually is a sportsman (basketball is his particular passion) but for the masses here, he's much more than that: He's their next president.
A 39-year-old lawyer, Capriles is the popular governor of Miranda state. He won the right to contest Venezuela's October 7 presidential election by blitzing the nation's first ever opposition primary elections in February, winning 62 per cent of the vote.
Some 2,000 km away in Cuba, stands — or, rather more likely, lies — his opponent, a certain Hugo Chávez. Venezuela's president is recovering from his third cancer operation in 10 months, but is nonetheless "governing by Twitter" as Capriles's aides regularly point out.
The contrast is marked. As the convalescing president divides his time between Havana and Caracas, the sprightly Capriles traverses the country casa por casa ("house by house"), meeting and listening to the people. It's a strategy that Chavez himself employed to great effect during his first, successful, presidential campaign in 1999.
In the words of another governor, Lara state's Henri Falcón, now "the people receive Henrique in their homes just like they did with Chavez before — believe me, I know, because I was a Chávista.
"Nowadays, Chávez is all TV. Henrique is the street."
Of course, having consolidated his power over the past 13 years, Chávez will not loosen his grip lightly. He regularly talks of governing through to 2021 to complete his "socialist revolution", and his military sidekick, defence minister General Henry Rangel Silva, has said the armed forces would not tolerate an opposition government.
Even as I follow the Capriles campaign trail, it is invariably Chávez's face that looks back at me from the country's footpaths and billboards. The streets of Caracas in particular are awash with imagery of the president and the revolutionary figures to whose memory he likes to align his revolution, usually South American liberation hero Simón Bolívar and Che Guevara.
Chávez dominates the airwaves, too. Not even less frequent broadcasts of the Aló, Presidente (Hello, President) radio show have changed that. Instead of Chávez talking, others talk about him.
In short, Chávez is omnipresent in Venezuela.
But if Capriles is daunted by the size of the challenge ahead, he does not let on.
Speaking with The Global Mail in the offices of his Comando Tricolor (Tricolour Command) campaign team, he rejects the notion that defeating Chávez and his United Socialist Party (PSUV) might be a bridge too far, and he is entirely dismissive of the "perception" that the president has a monopoly on the poor vote.
"Often foreign correspondents come here with the idea that the government is very strong and never loses elections and that they somehow speak for the poor," he says.
"In the state in which I am governor, 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty. If poor people didn't believe in my project, I wouldn't be governor.
"This is very important because this is sometimes portrayed as a struggle between classes, between the haves and the have-nots. My fight is for the have-nots, that is why I am a politician. I am not here to provide for those who already have, it is about providing policies that allow those who need my help to better themselves."
CAPRILES'S SHORT-SLEEVED green shirt is hardly formal, but neither is it the athletic gear he prefers to sport in the street. He's just dressed up for a national press conference a couple of rooms away, where he waved the day's newspaper headlines in front of the cameras to demonstrate the country's security crisis.
In his office, as in the press conference before, he speaks in clear, measured tones. Some of his lines are clearly rehearsed; all of them are delivered with intense eye contact. The man believes what he says, and he really wants you to believe it, too.
He doesn't possess his rival's natural charisma but he is comfortable, if not brilliant, in front of the camera. Nor will he speak for hours at a time à la Chávez's epic, Castro-inspired monologues. Capriles's bites are concise, he sticks religiously to the message, and he doesn't lose his cool.
Despite launching volleys of insults across the political divide, Chávez and his supporters have been unable to get a public rise out of their opponent. The taunts have ranged from the relatively innocuous "low-life pig" to more sinister insinuations related to his Jewish ancestry.
Most opinion polls give Chávez a solid lead over Capriles, but Luis Vicente León, whose respected firm Datanálisis has the president 13 points ahead, says the gap is narrowing.
"Chávez started 40 points ahead," he says. "Capriles is not the favourite, but this is the big chance for the opposition. In 2006 the opposition was not ready to face Chávez."
At that time, though ostensibly united behind one presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales, the opposition faced a mountain of its own making: A year earlier in 2005, opposition parties had disastrously boycotted legislative elections, handing to the president a legislature stacked with his allies.
Six years on and the opposition is presenting a united front through the Coalition for Democratic Unity, known by its Spanish acronym MUD. After the February 2012 primary, the losing candidates were quick to rally behind Capriles, in whom they believe they have a leader genuinely capable of defeating Chávez.
The opposition has form too, having scored some significant victories against Chávez's party — chief amongst them Capriles's own defeat of Diosdado Cabello, seen as a possible Chávez successor, in the battle for the Miranda governorship.
IN THE OPPOSITION primary, Capriles was the youngest candidate but he was also the most experienced one. And he boasts an unblemished electoral record. In 1998, the same year Chávez first won the presidential vote, then 25-year-old Capriles became the country's youngest ever parliamentarian. At 27 he was appointed president of the National Congress and he went on to serve as mayor of the Caracas suburb Baruta before being elected governor of Miranda in 2008.
A stranger to political defeat, he has enormous confidence both in his method and his message, and he insists it is the latter that will propel the MUD to power in October.
Capriles's trump card is his record as governor. Not only did he defeat an important Chávez ally to the post, but he has managed to implement successful social projects with a fraction of the budget a Chávista governor could expect.
Nearly 3,000 poverty-stricken Mirandino families receive food and housing under Capriles's Plan Hambre Cero (Zero Hunger Plan) and 70 per cent of the state's budget is designated to education-related projects. More than 400 schools have been constructed or refurbished under Capriles's watch in Miranda.
His Plan Mi Vivienda (My Home Plan) has allowed more than 150,000 people to access materials for home improvements at the state's expense. It's a program Capriles promises to expand nationally. "We have so much oil in this country," he says "and there are people living in cardboard houses."
At a Plan Mi Vivienda event in Caracas, Capriles stresses that the program is inclusive and not politically motivated. The inference is that, by contrast, delivery of the federal government's social programs is dependent on the recipient pledging their vote.
"No one seated here today who is going to receive a benefit was asked about their political allegiance, no one was asked for anything in return," Capriles says.
"The only requirement to be here is your need for assistance."
"Sadly, in this country we've seen that other people who have power only work for their own group, only for those in their party. If you are not part of that party, they give you nothing."
The opposition may not be prepared to "buy" votes, but they are going to have to get them one way or another. About two million of them, according to Pedro Mendoza, who works on the Comando Tricolor's national training committee.
"We concentrate less on the polls and more on what we call 'hard votes'," he says.
"In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the opposition had its first majority vote win against the Chávez administration by obtaining 5,800,000 votes."
Mendoza says these are "hard votes" that Capriles can rely on.
"The total electoral population last registered in Venezuela is approximately 18 million voters [in fact 19 million voters were registered before the April 15 deadline].
"Of this number about 12 million actually voted in the last two elections, so we are looking for about two million 'new' voters to win in October."
THE ELECTION WILL BE WON and lost on two issues — security and employment, Capriles says.
Almost 20,000 people were murdered in Venezuela in 2011 — more than 50 a day — and the capital, Caracas, is renowned as one of the world's most dangerous cities.
Complicating the security situation, some of Caracas's armed gangs openly pledge their allegiance to Chávez, such as the notorious La Piedrita (Little Rock) gang that controls the poor 23 de Enero neighbourhood. While the president at times distances himself from these groups — he's even said they "damage the revolution" — rumours persist that they are an "armed wing" at the government's disposal. The group certainly seems to be, at the very least, tolerated. Its leader, Valentin Santana, remains free despite the existence of arrest warrants — including for murder — dating back to 2009.
Two people were injured after shots were fired during a visit by the Capriles camp to another pro-Chávez Caracas neighbourhood, Cotiza, in March. The Comando Tricolor say the incident was a case of government intimidation, while the government responded cynically by announcing an assassination plot against Capriles by "opposition extremists". Chávez similarly warned of an assassination plot against his then challenger Manuel Rosales during the last presidential election campaign.
"Venezuela is crying out for an end to the violence," Capriles says, "and this is going to require big structural change.
"For every 100 homicides, eight people are sentenced to prison, that's to say there is absolute impunity. The message is that if you commit a crime in this country you will not receive any punishment. It has to change, there has to be a judicial system that works."
Part of the problem, he says, is that the country's notoriously corrupt police are "the most poorly paid in the region".
"Police officers need to be respected in society. They need to be well paid and well trained and there needs to be investment so that there are more of them."
He also proposes an overhaul of the prison system, "a monster I know from the inside". In 2002, as Baruta mayor, Capriles spent a month in prison on charges of inciting a mob outside the Cuban embassy and invading the premises. He was later acquitted.
Drawing particular attention to the infamous La Planta prison in Caracas, which in recent months has seen gunfights and escape attempts, he describes the prison system as "an embarrassment".
"How can you combat crime if organised criminal gangs are operating out of the country's jails?
"The prisons aren't serving their role, we have to change them into centres of rehabilitation and education."
The government has since announced that La Planta "cannot be fixed" and will be closed down.
In terms of generating employment, Capriles espouses a "Brazilian approach", citing the efforts of successive Brazilian presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and now Dilma Rousseff, to achieve economic growth "oriented to overcoming poverty".
"Brazil achieved an overhaul of its economy and managed to take 30 million people out of poverty and to create 16 million jobs," he says.
"In Venezuela there are more than six million people who don't have good, stable jobs, jobs that are properly paid and formal. This is the challenge we have in Venezuela, how to activate the economy like Brazil."
WITH INFLATION RAMPANT at close to 30 per cent and frequent shortages of basic items — including in industries largely nationalised, such as dairy and coffee — some former believers are now questioning Chávez's revolution.
Audiovisual producer Néstor Filippini, 55, is one.
"I am sick of all the talk," he says, "we have so much money and resources but we live with shortages and there are parts of the country that don't receive basic services either."
"I'm from the left but I can't excuse Chávez for what he has done in the name of the left."
"We need capitalism to manage the money and socialism to get the benefits to the people — I think Capriles can do that."
But for every doubting Néstor Filippini, there are many more unwavering Chávez believers like William Gómez.
Curious that I'd bothered to meet with the "burguesito" ("little bourgeois") Capriles, Gómez, 50, takes me to see the "real Venezuela". A driver in an unofficial taxi business, he knows Caracas's streets well. We visit a host of the city's poorer barrios.
"It's a shame the president is sick, otherwise you could meet him too and he'd correct the lies that the other one told you."
Stopping to talk to a group of men by the side of the road, Gómez booms "Hey, this guy is from Canada (sic) and he met Capriles!"
"Burguesito!" they respond in unison, laughing.
After a brief tour taking in three separate housing projects and a new hospital — "all gifts from Chávez for the people" — Gómez confides: "[Capriles] hates the poor, you know. If he were elected, he'd take all of this away."
He seems to really believe it.
Ten minutes later we pull into a PDVSA (the state-owned oil company) service station and Gómez smiles towards his right hand: "See these coins (3.50 Bolivares, about AUD$0.80), I can fill the tank with this."
"All thanks to Chávez."
Men like William Gómez represent Chávez's "hard votes". The direct health, housing and food benefits they receive through the president's social "missions" convince them of the revolution's worth, and they are loyal.
Notwithstanding the significant gains Capriles has made for the poorer sectors of his constituency in Miranda, these are votes he can't hope to prise from Chávez's grasp.
Neither side wants to admit it, but the president's health has become as important to the election as any other issue.
The president refuses to name — some say even to contemplate — a successor, and it is generally accepted by commentators that no potential successor could hope to defeat Capriles in October, certainly not without Chávez's express backing.
The true extent of Chávez's illness is a well-guarded secret, though the Brazilian weekly magazine Veja quoted doctors who'd treated him as saying they warned him in October last year that he had less than a year to live.
Chávez insists he'll overcome the disease and lead the revolution for another two six-year terms. For his part, Capriles wishes his adversary a speedy recovery "so he can see the changes coming to Venezuela."
In the short term, his health battle could actually be a political advantage for Chávez, according to former planning minister and 2006 presidential candidate Teodoro Petkoff, who since 2000 has edited the Tal Cual newspaper.
"Chávez has used his illness politically, inspiring pity and appealing to the feelings of compassion that all human beings have," he says.
But as his famed television and radio assaults — which all broadcasters are obliged to transmit live — become fewer and shorter, the whispers about his ability to govern will grow louder.
Back in Venezuela after his latest round of treatment in Cuba, the president hit the airwaves on Monday, April 30, 2012, to impart some election year sweeteners. The big news was his new Ley de Trabajadores (Workers' Law). It shortens the working week from 44 to 40 hours, guarantees female workers 26 weeks pregnancy leave and implements a generous new severance pay regime.
He also announces that Venezuela will withdraw from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) because of the "undue US influence" within the body.This at a time when the nongovernmental organisation Human Rights Watch bemoans the "precarious human rights situation" in Venezuela.
All the while, Capriles keeps beating a trail around the country, casa por casa.