- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Venezuelans are preparing to head to the polls Sunday to nominate a challenger to President Hugo Chavez in what analysts say is likely to be the country’s closest election in 14 years.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of Miranda state, is widely expected to win the opposition primary over Zulia Gov. Pablo Perez, congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, former U.N. Ambassador Diego Arria, and former union leader Pablo Medina.

A sixth candidate, Leopoldo Lopez, dropped out last week and endorsed Mr. Capriles. All of the candidates have vowed to support whoever wins the nomination.

The stakes of the vote could not be higher for Venezuela. The winner will face Mr. Chavez in October, though some have speculated that the cancer-stricken Socialist leader may not be alive by then.

Mr. Chavez, who came to power in 1998, has won successive landslides against weak challengers. But the long-disorganized opposition has united in recent years under the Unified Democratic Panel banner, winning the 2010 legislative elections.

“The opposition has the best opportunity so far to end Chavez’s rule democratically, and that of course would mean a much better relationship with the United States,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue.

Relations between Mr. Chavez and the U.S. have remained tense throughout his 13 years in power. The U.S. revoked the visa of Venezuela’s ambassador in December 2010 after Mr. Chavez refused to accept a new American ambassador because of critical comments he had made.

“What Capriles [has] been careful to say - intelligently, I think - is that he wants an independent relationship, where Venezuela is not an instrument of the U.S.,” Mr. Shifter said. “He wants good relations, but he knows that Venezuelans have a sense of pride.”

Mr. Capriles and the other candidates also have vowed to end Mr. Chavez’s alliances with Cuba and autocratic regimes in the Middle East.

Venezuela currently sends an estimated 115,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba under a longstanding arrangement instituted by Mr. Chavez. The Venezuelan leader also has embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The current race has focused primarily on domestic concerns, with the candidates all vowing to end Mr. Chavez’s mismanagement of the economy and to fight soaring street crime in Caracas and other major cities.

“Chaos is what we have now in Venezuela,” Mr. Capriles, 39, said at a news conference in Caracas on Tuesday.

He likened the coming race between himself and the 57-year-old Mr. Chavez as one between “a horse that’s tired” and one that is “filled with energy.”

Mr. Chavez, who won a 2009 constitutional referendum to eliminate term limits, has vowed to serve until 2031.