CARACAS, Oct. 5, 2012 – Dressed in red and chanting “Ja, ja, Chavez no se va” (Ha, ha, Chavez is not leaving) thousands of people marched down seven major avenues in downtown Caracas under the rain to attend President Hugo Chavez’ last campaign rally before Sunday’s election. After a 14 –year rule, Chavez faces his toughest reelection battle yet in a contest that pits the 58-year-old leader, who is battling an undisclosed type of cancer, against 40-year-old Henrique Capriles, a law-school graduate and governor often seen leaping onto a stage during campaign rallies.
Capriles’ followers have nicknamed him “El Flaquito” because of his athletic figure. He is the candidate for the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) party which groups 30 political organizations that make up the bulk of the opposition against Chavez. His campaign rallies resemble a pop concert more than a political event, with people screaming his name as Capriles screams back, “Te quiero Venezuela!” (I love you Venezuela). “He runs up on the podium and he talks energetically and he shows his youth,” says Erick Langer, director of Georgetown University’s Latin America Center. “I think the Venezuelan populous is also looking at that and those who vote will think, well, do I want vigorous or do I want this old war horse,” adds Langer.
“He (Capriles) gets better and better every day,” says Luis Elena about Capriles’ speeches. The Texas college professor of geology asks that her last name not be used for fear the Chavez administration would persecute her Caracas relatives if word gets out they will vote for Capriles. The opposition candidate himself has been reassuring supporters that their choice at the voting booth will remain a secret, and Chavez has said the same, but the fear is palpable. “Hush, there might be a Chavista around,” Luis Elena’s husband tells her as she praises Capriles.
It took the couple two plane rides and an overnight stay in Miami to fly from their home near Houston to Caracas, but they say they are thrilled to have made it on time to cast her vote. Flights to Caracas are booked solid for the entire week. In South Florida, where many Venezuelans have settled after fleeing their country since Chavez got elected in 1998, some 15,000 are expected to board chartered flights and chartered buses to vote at the closest place they are allowed to vote in the U.S., the Venezuelan consulate in New Orleans.
But in Caracas’ poor barrios, many see Capriles as an outsider who does not understand the dilemmas of the poor because of his wealthy background. The lawyer’s maternal grandfather, a survivor of the Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, settled in Caracas after World War II, and despite arriving with no money, managed to accumulate enough to buy a chain of movie theatres, a newspaper and become a wealthy man.
Despite his Sephardic Jewish roots, Capriles is a devout catholic who always carries a cross around his neck and has made it a point to stop at shrines during his campaign. He says his faith got him through what he calls “the darkest period” of his life when he was jailed for allegedly leading an assault on the Cuban embassy during the coup attempt against Chavez in 2002 and placed in solitary confinement for 3 weeks.
In a country where at least a third of the population is below the poverty level, Chavez’ low-income background is a political advantage. The charismatic orator, who forces TV networks to carry his several hour-long speeches, represents the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). He has instituted a social program called “Misiones,” or missions, welfare plans that give out free food to poor families and provide funds for children and adults to attend school. Revenues from the increase in oil prices have benefited Venezuela despite the fact the country is producing 30 percent less oil than what it used to before Chavez took office and forced American oil companies out. “Hugo Chavez has a core support of very poor people who owe a lot to him,” says Langer.
The last year has seen an increase in social spending and building of low-income housing in a country where thousands live in shacks of corrugated iron that barely cling to deforested mountains, where mudslides are common. “Even though Chavez is not really buying votes, he is implementing a social program and it’s going to be very difficult for a voter to vote for a candidate that may not keep these social programs,” says Vivian Giacoman, Latin American program director at Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization. Capriles has said he will keep some of the “Misiones” in effect, but he also maintains that the focus should be on creating jobs for the poor, not on giving them handouts. The Chavez administration maintains poverty has been cut in half thanks to his programs.
Chavez is famous for his anti U.S. rhetoric. He called George w. Bush the devil while addressing the United nations and Barack Obama a clown. But last night, during a televised live interview with Venezuelan journalists that went past 11 p.m., he changed his tone towards the U.S. “I hope during the next administration we can reestablish dialogue with the U.S.” he said, wishing President Obama luck in his reelection effort.
The United States remains the top market for Venezuelan oil, but Chavez has been diversifying his country’s clientele by selling more to China and Russia.
The two candidates wrapped up their campaigns last night, 3 days before election day, as required under Venezuelan election law. Capriles had been visiting 3 or 4 towns a day as part of his effort to persuade voters to pick him. Meanwhile, the president cut down on traveling during his campaign, admitting chemotherapy and radiation has taken a toll on his body.
The men appear to be each other’s opposites, but they do have one thing in common. They are both single. Chavez has been divorced twice. His daughter, Maria Gabriela, serves as First Lady. Capriles has never married. During campaign stops, women are seen blowing kisses at each of them and holding up signs that spell “I love you.” And they both get marriage proposal through Twitter and Facebook that appear to remain unanswered.