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Venezuelan challenger aims to oust Chavez
State governor, representing unified opposition, decries leader’s largesse, slanted state-run media
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan presidential hopeful Henrique Capriles last week called for “balanced elections” and criticized the use of government money and slanted coverage in state media as President Hugo Chavez seeks re-election.
Mr. Capriles is expected to face a tough race against Mr. Chavez, who even after 13 years in office remains a hero to many of his supporters and maintains a visceral connection to a significant segment of the poor in Venezuela.
Mr. Chavez also will likely use a bonanza of public spending as he seeks re-election in the Oct. 7 presidential election.
Mr. Capriles complained last week that government-run television coverage is tilted against him.
“Let’s have some balanced elections,” Mr. Capriles said at a news conference a day after handily winning the opposition’s first-ever presidential primary.
The 39-year-old candidate, who is governor of Miranda state, also strongly criticized Mr. Chavez’s economic policies. He condemned the government’s expropriations of hundreds of businesses, apartment buildings and farms over the past decade.
“All the expropriations have been a failure,” Mr. Capriles said. “The companies that have been seized by the state must be reviewed one by one.”
He said some of those businesses could be privatized if he defeats Mr. Chavez.
Mr. Capriles warned that newly stiffened price controls won’t work and predicted many items will become scarce. He said deodorant could start to vanish from stores, laughing as he said that Venezuelans might need to start to live with body odor.
Mr. Capriles touted the turnout of about 3 million ballots cast out of 18 million registered voters as a major achievement.
“Venezuela woke up with a new political reality,” he said.
Vice President Elias Jaua said that it was positive for the opposition to have recognized the authority of the National Electoral Council. Some Chavez opponents have questioned its independence in the past.
He said the opposition should respect the electoral council as an impartial arbiter, as well as the role the military will play in maintaining security during the vote.
Mr. Chavez has said no one can question the fairness of the country’s electoral system, and that his government’s spending is aimed at promoting the country’s development and addressing the needs of Venezuelans.
About 16 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the primary, far surpassing the opposition’s goal of 10 percent to 12 percent.
About one-fourth of voters are in neither political camp, though, and in that group about 10 percent to 15 percent are likely to cast ballots, Mr. Leon said. Many of the swing voters are young people who have grown up during Mr. Chavez’s presidency, Mr. Leon said.
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the opposition seems to be on solid footing.
“They have a charismatic, credible candidate who — since he has spent most of his adult life in Chavez’s Venezuela — doesn’t carry the baggage of the corrupt governments that came before Hugo Chavez,” Mr. Isacson said.
“And the opposition no doubt benefits from a bout of ‘Chavez fatigue’ in Venezuela. Even many voters who think fondly of Hugo Chavez may feel that 14 years is enough, and his cancer has made many start to envision a post-Chavez Venezuela for the first time in a while.”
Mr. Chavez’s approval ratings have topped 50 percent in recent polls, and his struggle with cancer doesn’t appear to have hurt his popularity.
The 57-year-old president says he’s cancer-free after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy last year, and has been energetic in his hours-long television appearances, apparently trying to show he can still keep up with a younger challenger.
Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said he thinks one significant hurdle facing Mr. Capriles is to try to “challenge Chavez’s claim to being the president of the non-privileged, as well as the defender of Venezuelan nationalism.”
“Capriles needs to come up with a set of concrete measures that are innovative and reach out to the popular classes,” Mr. Ellner said.
Mr. Capriles is a moderate who describes his views as center-left.
He said he expects personal attacks from Mr. Chavez to increase, and suggested that he, too, might become more confrontational in response. So far, Mr. Capriles has largely avoided direct or personal barbs.
“If they want me to get into the ring, I’ll get into the ring,” he said.
The leftist president said before the primary that all of his rivals represent the interests of the rich and the U.S. government.
Mr. Chavez already has kicked his campaign machinery into gear. He has increased spending by launching new social programs that offer cash benefits for the poor and invested heavily in new railways, public housing and cable car systems in Venezuela’s hillside slums.
As the election nears, he will inaugurate other big-ticket projects that grab attention, including the planned launch of Venezuela’s second Chinese-made satellite shortly before the October vote.
But Mr. Capriles can count on ample campaign funding from anti-Chavez donors, as well as high visibility in opposition-aligned media, including the television channel Globovision, private radio stations and newspapers.
Mr. Chavez has warned voters that if they don’t re-elect him, his social programs — called “missions” — would vanish. That threat, though disputed by Mr. Capriles, could have an influence on some in the run-up to the vote.
Many working-class Venezuelans say they still support Mr. Chavez and his socialist-inspired program, even as some “Chavistas” openly complain of inefficiency and corruption within his government.
“There are good things and bad things because nobody’s perfect, but … he’s helped poor people a lot,” said Heidi Lopez, a 33-year-old who raves about the discounted food at government-run markets and plans to vote for Mr. Chavez again.
Some of Mr. Capriles‘ supporters say they think he has a good chance of winning over Venezuelans who otherwise might lean pro-Chavez because he has taken a largely non-confrontational approach while promising solutions to problems, including 26-percent inflation and one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.
Diego Prada, a 23-year-old marketing manager, said Mr. Capriles‘ inclusive approach resonates among many.
“People are tired of so much confrontation,” Mr. Prada said.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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