CARACAS — Hugo Chávez does not filter his words. The Venezuelan strongman made headlines when he called former U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations, and when he claimed former Peruvian President Alan Garcia was a thief, an embarrassment, and a scoundrel. That trait has endeared him to many Venezuelans, who like their president's flamboyant, straight-talking ways. It could also prove to be his downfall in this year's presidential election, scheduled for Oct. 7.
In the two weeks since Chávez's opponent, state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, won the presidential primary on Feb. 12, Chávez, 57, has called him a pig, an American lackey, a bourgeois enemy of the revolution, and a mediocrity. Chávez has also been quick to warn the nation's poor that a Capriles victory would rob them of their gains under his tenure and lead to chaos, instability, and the possibility of coups and civil war.
The president's followers haven't been kinder. Venezuela's state television and radio personalities have insinuated that the unmarried Capriles, 39, is not only gay, but also part of both a Zionist conspiracy and a neo-Nazi sect.
Outlandish accusations and unfounded allegations are a fixture in Venezuela's political scene. What is different this time is Capriles's reaction. He has steadfastly laughed off the allegations made by Chávez and his surrogates, telling El Universal newspaper, "I'm not going to waste any energy on this when there are more important things to tackle." Pledging to run a campaign on issues, not personalities, he has never publically insulted Chávez.
And surprisingly -- unlike the first three presidential elections that Chávez easily won (1998, 2000, and 2006) -- Capriles, the popular governor of Miranda, Venezuela's second-most populous state, might actually win. "Chávez's strategists may have thought it would be good to move quickly in demeaning Capriles in order that the primary election was not used as a springboard for the opposition campaign," says Julia Buxton, a fellow at the University of Bradford in Britain. "But it is a reckless approach that may have the counter impact of presenting the opposition as a bastion of tolerance and liberalism."
Signs of a backlash have already emerged.
The Hinterlaces polling agency, one of the country's largest, showed Chávez at 55 percent, compared with the opposition's 44 percent in the week leading up to the primary. Flash polls taken after the primary showed a rapid narrowing of the gap.