Dispatch

The Contest in Caracas

The Venezuelan election is too close to call. But one thing seems clear: No one expects Hugo Chávez to go down without a fight.

For more photos of Chávez, click here. 

MARACAY, Venezuela — Henrique Capriles Radonski has been called many things in his uphill fight to unseat Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Chávez has constantly ridiculed him as a majunche ("nobody") and a U.S. lackey. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro called him "queer," while government ministers have said that he is a right-wing reactionary.

On Sunday, Oct. 7, however, Capriles's detractors may have to call him something else: winner.

Capriles, 40, handsome, and single, has emerged as the first viable democratic challenger in 14 years to Chávez, the eccentric socialist leader who styles himself the ideological heir to Fidel Castro. Young and photogenic, Capriles has barnstormed the country, visiting more than 300 cities since he began his campaign.

Drawing big crowds along the way -- along with women imploring him to select them as his first lady -- Capriles has sought to differentiate himself from the cancer-stricken Chávez, 58, by his vigor and energy. He often wades into crowds or breaks into a jog during his fact-finding campaign caminatas ("walks") through towns and cities.

Capriles has criticized Chávez for spending too much money and time on promoting his socialist revolution at home and abroad, at the expense of the needs of the country's 29 million inhabitants. He has also harped on Venezuela's soaring crime rate -- the number of homicides in Venezuela last year exceeded 19,000, more than the United States and Europe combined -- as well as the breakdown in government services and the lack of employment opportunities for youth during Chávez's tenure.

"Our country wants to be better, and come Oct. 8, it will be better," Capriles said in a campaign stop this week in the southwestern state of Táchira before a crowd of thousands.

Despite his youth, Capriles has spent decades climbing the ladder of Venezuelan politics. He is the former governor of Venezuela's second-most populous state, Miranda, where he improved health services and education. He was first elected to the country's National Assembly in 1998, before being elected two years later as mayor of Baruta, a part of Greater Caracas.

Arrested and briefly imprisoned in 2002 for events tied to the takeover of the Cuban Embassy during a failed coup against Chávez, Capriles beat Chávez's right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello, in 2008 for the governorship of Miranda.

"The candidate of the government says he needs six more years to fix the country's problems,'' Capriles said at the rally. "But if he hasn't fixed them in 14 years, what makes him think he can do it in the next six?"

Although Chávez and his backers paint Capriles as a right-wing tool of the United States, his political instincts are in reality far more moderate. He models himself after former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and has promised to invest heavily in developing Venezuela's industries to generate jobs. He has also promised to maintain and improve many of Chávez's social programs -- albeit with the caveat of opening them up to all Venezuelans and just not supporters of the president. He would also curtail Venezuela's close relationship with Cuba, Iran, and Belarus.

Don't count Chávez out, however. The incumbent has proved himself to be a political survivor. He withstood a coup in 2002 and a recall vote in 2004, and this time around he has sought to portray the election as a matter of life and death for the country and his Bolivarian Revolution. Urging voters to put aside complaints about the country's faltering infrastructure and constant power outages and water shortages, Chávez has promised that he will do better if reelected.

"I will be a better president in the next term with all of the experiences I've gained," Chávez told supporters on Oct. 1 in the western state of Yaracuy.

Chávez's precarious health is the elephant in the room of his reelection campaign. The normally energetic president, who has undergone three operations for cancer, has run a weak campaign, says Julia Buxton, a senior research fellow at Britain's University of Bradford and the author of The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela. Chávez's face and neck appear puffy, presumably due to the cancer treatment, and he often appears heavily made up.

Venezuelan newspapers hint that Chávez has trouble walking for any significant distance and that he is taking steroids to maintain his physical presence. There's no doubt that he appears to be struggling on the campaign stump, where he often seems tired and perspires heavily. That has failed to dampen the enthusiasm of his supporters, however, who throw written requests seeking favors at him during campaign rallies.

Ironically, after over a decade in power, many Venezuelans see the mercurial president as a stabilizing force in the country. Chávez is a constant fixture on television, regularly holding cadenas, or national addresses, which the country's media are required by law to carry. His larger-than-life persona is a constant topic of conversation in the country -- and his ongoing fight with cancer has gripped the country's attention.

"Despite his physical and political frailties, Chávez is a reassuring presence -- better the devil you know than unpredictable alternatives," says Buxton, who expects Chávez to win. "Capriles has made some ground with his energetic political tours, but it has been too little, too late. The capacity of Capriles to craft a national consensus is limited due to the brevity of his campaign, just seven months."

National opinion polls offer mixed signals on the state of the race. Some polls show Capriles with up to a 2 to 3 percentage-point lead while others show Chávez with a lead of up to 15 percentage points. Many pollsters in Venezuela are in the employ of the candidates, potentially skewing their results. The pollster with the best track record -- Consultores 21 -- had Capriles ahead by a slim 0.8 point margin in its latest poll, released on Sept. 30.

One thing is certain: People in a large part of the electorate, up to 20 percent of voters in some surveys, are reluctant to express their opinions, presumably for fear of reprisal by the government.

For Venezuelans who rely on government benefits, that fear is palpable. Late last year, Chávez announced a plan to provide state housing for all of the country's homeless population. About 5 million people have registered for the program, and many are afraid that even stating their political preferences could cost them their home.

Natali Rodriguez, a janitor at a public school, is one of them.

Although Rodriguez was forced to join Chávez's United Socialist Party as a condition of her employment, she admits that she will probably vote for Capriles in the face of Venezuela's soaring crime and constant power outages in Maracay, an industrial city in the country's north.

"I wanted to attend Capriles's rally here, but I also don't want to lose my job," she says. "I need to support my family, so I have to go through the motions of supporting the president. But I won't vote for him. Capriles says that voting is secret. I hope he is right."

Up to 80 percent of Venezuela's eligible voters are expected to turn out on Sunday. Chávez and his party have sent patrols of supporters throughout the country to drum up support from voters. Capriles and his followers have similarly mobilized. Like in the United States, a close election may be decided by the two candidates' respective ground games.

"It will all depend on turnout," says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela.

No matter what the outcome, there is a real risk of post-election violence, especially if the vote is close. Chávez has repeatedly told his supporters that there is no way he can lose and that any defeat would herald a period of political instability -- up to and including civil war. Such statements have been seconded by the country's defense minister, who has said the armed forces wouldn't accept the victory of Capriles.

That means Capriles not only has to win -- but win convincingly. "I expect Capriles to win, but for the results to be contested. And that could lead to riots and the subsequent imposition of martial law," says Vanessa Neumann, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "In order for the results not to be contested, Capriles would have to win by at least 5 or 6 percentage points."

Many Venezuelans aren't taking any chances. Roberto Diaz, who works as an engineer, went grocery shopping last weekend to stock up on essentials.

"We spent 4,000 bolívares [roughly $900] on food," he said. "We bought lots of canned goods, cereals, rice, pasta. Things which are easy to prepare. If something happens we don't have to leave the house for a good week."

Whoever wins will have his work cut out for him. Chávez has borrowed heavily to finance his social programs this year, as well as his campaign. Venezuela's budget deficit is now estimated at 14 percent of GDP, and the country's Central Bank began selling part of its gold reserves to finance spending.

The bolívar fuerte ("strong bolívar") that Chávez introduced three years ago has slid in value on the black market. Although the official exchange rate is 4.3 to the U.S. dollar, the bolívar has hovered around 14 to the dollar on the black market as the campaign has progressed.

And oil production, which provides more than half of state revenue, continues to lag. "I am hoping that Capriles wins," says Laura Arruda, who mans a news kiosk in Maracay. "But under Chávez and his social programs, you no longer have to work. You can receive enough in government aid and subsidies to survive without having to work. And for many, that's all it takes."

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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