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.
"In the last presidential election, Chávez was untouchable, invulnerable," says Hinterlaces president Oscar Schemel. Not anymore. Since then, crime has soared. Power blackouts have increased in frequency, as have shortages of basic foodstuffs such as cooking oil, coffee, and corn meal. "Many Venezuelans are tired of government promises and its inability to address the country's problems," says Schemel.
The presidential primary -- the first of its kind in Venezuela -- galvanized the opposition, which has been buoyed by the turnout and the rapid closing of ranks among Capriles and his competitors. Prior to the Feb. 12 vote, Venezuela's presidential candidates were chosen by the party elites, often behind closed doors. This year, the country's opposition parties decided to hold a winner-take-all primary to determine their candidate.
In the run up to the primary, Chávez and his ministers repeatedly said the opposition would be lucky to draw more than 1 million voters. Instead, more than 3 million people (out of a total electorate of 18 million) voted for the opposition's presidential, gubernatorial, and mayoral candidates, surprising the government and leaving its followers grappling for an explanation.
The state television station, which had run misleading footage of empty polling precincts throughout the day, delayed announcing the results of the election. And when they did, moderators immediately charged that the turnout was exaggerated and mathematically impossible to achieve.
The higher-than-expected turnout also occurred despite government efforts to dampen participation. In the days before the primary, the government held special markets throughout the country selling hard-to-find products -- cooking oil, powdered milk, chicken -- at subsidized prices to the country's poor. Holders of government jobs were warned not to vote in the primary unless they wanted to lose their positions. The same message was passed to people enrolling in several new government programs for housing, old-age pensioners, and single mothers.
"I wanted to vote in the primary, but when I interviewed for a job at a state school, the principal told me that if I voted there was no way she could hire me," Alicia Reyes, a 39-year-old secretary, told me. "I need the job and decided not to vote. I will have to wait until October to vote against Chávez."
Many Venezuelans also feared that voting in the primary would form the basis for a new blacklist. Their fears aren't exaggerated. In 2003-2004, signers of a petition to recall Chávez found themselves penalized after their names were leaked to a pro-Chávez legislator, Luis Tascon. Tascon published the list, and hundreds, if not thousands, of signers lost their government jobs.
Even worse, Tascon's original list is still used by government agencies to vet potential employees eight years later. "I was told by my boss to hire an assistant," says an employee in the administrative department at the Supreme Court, who asked to remain anonymous. "I had someone in mind and I told my supervisor. She told me to go to her desk and pull out a diskette and see if my friend's name was on it. It was Tascon's list. His name was there. My supervisor told me to forget him, as there was no way we could hire him."
Besides challenging the veracity of the turnout figure, Chávez and his government have also publicly castigated the country's election agency for its handling of the primary. The agency, which is run by Chávez supporters, agreed to an opposition request to forego the use of fingerprint verification devices during the vote.
The agency also allowed the Coalition for Democratic Unity, which organized the vote, to burn its voter registration books two days after the primary to ensure that participants wouldn't be penalized for voting in the primary. Their destruction occurred in spite of the firmly pro-Chávez Supreme Court's edict ordering the books to be saved. "The government's bumbling response to the primary has hurt them," Schemel says. "Rather than proclaim the primary as a victory for the country's democracy, officials have attacked and ridiculed it, which has moved undecided voters to Capriles."
The question is why Chávez -- a master politician adept at manipulating the opposition -- has been outflanked by his opponents. "Crime, inflation, and shortages are cited as key weaknesses for Chávez going into this election," says Buxton. "But the most significant impediment that he faces between now and victory in October is his health. And that remains an unknown."
The president had a cancerous tumor removed in July and underwent chemotherapy. Although he claimed to be cancer free after his treatment, he announced Tuesday that a small lesion had been found near his original tumor and that he would undergo additional surgery in Cuba. Chávez denied that his cancer had metastasized but said he would spend several weeks in Cuba, where he would also undergo radiation therapy.
The president has repeatedly refused to give more details about his cancer or his long-term prognosis, amid speculation that the disease could force him to withdraw from the race. Chávez seems to need to appear healthy and macho, and his name-calling struck some as overcompensating. His face remains bloated and swollen, and he sometimes seems less in command than he was before his illness.
That plays into Capriles's hands. An avid sportsman, Capriles radiates health and youth. And in appearance-obsessed Venezuela, that gives him an undeniable advantage, especially if Chávez's health worsens.
But Chávez is far from out. In the days after the primary vote, Chávez gave a number of speeches that by law must be carried by all of the country's radio and television stations. He can draw on the resources of the state to distribute largesse to the country's poor, who remain strongly pro-Chávez and who make up the bulk of voters. He can also pressure the electoral agency to rule against opposition campaign tactics or literature.
Chávez has said he will step down if he loses, but few believe him, and the armed forces have warned they will not accept an opposition victory. Things could get messy. But Chávez's resort to a smear campaign, and Capriles's handling of the attacks, have given the country's opposition hope that the president's Bolivarian Revolution may finally be running its course.