RIO DE JANEIRO -- Let's say that you're an incumbent president with a life-threatening illness. Your economy is a mess, with inflation pushing 25 percent a year and store-bought goods like milk and eggs rare as buried treasure. Bridges are collapsing, a giant oil refinery goes up in a deadly fireball, and flipping a switch may or may not turn on the lights. So much the better for the busy criminals, who have turned your city streets into some of the bloodiest in the world. What can you possibly do to win re-election?
Call João Santana, of course. That, at any rate, is what Hugo Chávez did ahead of the hotly disputed presidential elections in Venezuela last month. Sure, the Venezuelan clown prince was already a political legend, and his heavy-handed use of electoral resources -- such as his near-unchallenged domination of the media and the judiciary and the looting of the state treasury to finance handouts to voters -- didn't hurt. But sometimes even the gods need a hand, and after 14 bruising years in office, with his own popularity sagging and a united opposition rising fast, Chávez knew that it was time for reinforcements. And in Latin American electoral politics these days, that means bringing in the Brazilians.
These days the Brazilian consultant to beat is Santana. After running winning campaigns at home for Workers' Party (PT) President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, Santana has gone on to lead dark horses and dullards to power across the Americas, from onetime coup-maker Ollanta Humala in Peru to the wonky economist Danilo Medina in the Dominican Republic. But in Venezuela, he had his work cut out for him. Chávez was convalescing from three straight bouts of surgery for an unspecified cancer after doctors removed a baseball-sized tumor from his pelvis. The ailment kept him shuttling back and forth to Havana for weeks for punishing bouts of radiation therapy that left him bloated and exhausted. His challenger, Henrique Capriles -- smart, youthful, and telegenic -- was running at the head of the first truly unified opposition campaign in recent memory. (It says a lot that Capriles also hired a team of Brazilian consultants.)
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Santana went to work with a will. He skillfully airbrushed the Chávez campaign, compensating for the president's visible fatigue and long absences from the public eye with heroic close-ups and slow-motion takes of the candidate hailing imaginary multitudes. Instead of resorting to familiar imagery of the irrepressible showman wading through adoring throngs or thundering from the dais, the campaign spun Chávez as statesmanlike and avuncular, waxing beatific in carefully edited sound bites. "The Heart of My Fatherland," was the official campaign slogan.
All this played well on the airwaves. "The campaign was masterfully orchestrated," admits Diego Arria, an ex-Venezuelan diplomat and former presidential candidate himself. "There were six or seven camera crews following Chávez around and shooting every rally. The Brazilians gave a shot in the arm to Venezuelan politics." In the end, Chávez romped to a 55 to 44 percent victory over Capriles, the incumbent's third-straight election triumph, and one that extended his mandate until 2019.