The Long Shadow

Venezuela’s upcoming election features a young challenger against Hugo Chávez’s appointed successor -- who’s doing everything in his power to make the race about his dead boss.

CARACAS — Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski is hoping to complete a trifecta of victories against the country's vice presidents in next month's election to choose a successor to fallen leader Hugo Chávez.

Back in 2008, Capriles upset Chávez's right hand man and former Vice President Diosdado Cabello -- now head of the national assembly -- and was elected governor of the populous state of Miranda. Last December, he bested another former vice president, Elías Jaua -- now foreign minister -- to win reelection.

Both of these were impressive victories -- the government spent heavily in hopes of ousting him -- but the third victory will undoubtedly be the toughest. Capriles, who is regarded as the opposition's best, and perhaps only, hope to retake the country's presidency, is facing acting President Nicolás Maduro, whom Chávez chose as his vice president in October. In addition to access to the substantial resources of the state, Maduro is riding high on a wave of public sympathy for Chávez, who died March 5 after a two-year bout with cancer. It's also Capriles's second presidential race in less than a year: Chávez beat him last October, though it was the closest-fought campaign of the late president's 14-year tenure. 

"The election is going to be a referendum on what kind of man, what kind of president Hugo Chávez was," said Ray Walzer, a fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "The problem for Capriles is that Venezuela is in a post-Chávez hangover now."

Polls matching Capriles and Maduro and taken before Chávez´s death showed the latter with a strong double-digit lead, ranging from 10 to 15 percentage points. However, Capriles has come out swinging this time, in marked contrast to his race last year when some advisors felt he was too deferential to the ailing president and didn't attack Chávez's policies enough. They also faulted him for not responding to Chávez's personal insults.

"Candidate Capriles is going to be much more forceful this time, more direct and questioning," said an advisor to the challenger, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Last time he was too polite, which was viewed as a weakness. This time, the gloves are off." 

Capriles has wasted no time on going on the attack since accepting the nomination from the opposition coalition front to contest the April 14 election.  He has repeatedly charged that Maduro, 50, lied to the Venezuelans about the date and circumstances of Chávez's death, to give himself more time to fortify his position. His stump speech hammers the acting president, claiming that Maduro's first 100 days in office have been a disaster, highlighted by the decision to devalue the country's currency by 32 percent.

"Nicolás has been campaigning ever since President Hugo Chávez went for his treatment," Capriles said in a meeting on March 12 with journalists. "We're already 100 days into Nicolas's government and look where our country is going. He is a bad imitation of the president." 

There is little love lost between the two men. During last year's campaign, Maduro insinuated that Capriles, who is single, was gay. Other Maduro backers have whispered that Capriles is Jewish, which he isn't.

Maduro stepped up the accusations in early March, internationalizing the dispute, when he said that Capriles had gone to the United States to conspire to overthrow the government with the collusion of U.S. intelligence agents. Capriles said the trip (he visited Miami and New York the week prior to Chávez's death) was to visit family members, and tweeted photos of himself with his nephews.

Now, and somewhat bizarrely, Maduro has accused Washington of plotting the assassination of Capriles. The government has already expelled U.S. officials and just suspended talks to improve relations between Washington and Caracas following U.S. Undersecretary of State for Latin America Roberta Jacobson's call for Venezuela to stage free and transparent elections.

Capriles makes no secret of his disdain for Maduro, constantly calling him by his first name and refusing to refer to him as president, noting that he was never elected to the position. He accuses Maduro of hiding behind Chávez's image to avoid taking blame for bad decisions.

Maduro counters by accusing Capriles of dishonoring Chávez's memory and of being disrespectful to the president's family.  (He was neither invited nor allowed to attend the funeral.) Maduro has also been careful to identify himself as "a son of Chávez," and constantly sprinkles his speeches with references to the fallen leader. He often speaks in public with a picture of Chávez in the background, looking over his shoulder, much like his old boss did with Simon Bolivar.

"Maduro isn't Chávez but then he doesn't need to be," said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office for Latin America. "He is still basking in the glow of Chávez." 

Smilde noted that Capriles needs to stop mentioning Chávez as the root of all ills, and start sharing his plans for the future. Venezuela's economy and soaring crime are the issues that resonate most with voters. Since the devaluation, prices have soared. Although the official exchange rate is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar, it was trading at 26 on the black market in the days after Chávez's death before falling back to 23.50. Basic foodstuffs such as coffee, sugar, cooking oil, corn meal, and meat -- the prices of which are set by the government -- remain scarce.

"I may be a Chavista," said Nora Alvarez, a 28-year-old housewife waiting in line outside a supermarket in Caracas. "But this is ridiculous. I am wasting four hours just to buy 4 kilograms of corn meal. We never went through this before."

Crime is also surging. Maduro said last week that he would seek to talk to the leaders of Venezuela's crime gangs to convince them put down their arms. Failing that, he said he would send in the police, national guard, and army to hunt them down. Capriles and members of the opposition ridiculed Maduro's entreaty, saying it was unrealistic to hope the gangs would voluntarily give up their life of crime.

"This election is an important one for Capriles and the opposition to get their ideas out there, to get a message to the country that they have alternative policies, and ideas for the country," said Smilde.  "Then he will be in a position in the future, when things get tough for Maduro, to offer Venezuelans a different path, a different message."

So far, however, Maduro is sticking with a simple message: I am the heir to Chávez; stick with me. Maduro's campaign literature prominently features a picture of Chávez's above the words "Maduro from the heart." Occasionally, the imitation verges on self-parody. Maduro has started singing at public appearances, just as Chávez did and has started tweeting. 

But Maduro may have lost perhaps the key prop in his election bid. It may be too late to embalm Chávez's body to have it placed on permanent display, Maduro said last weekend. The government had planned to place the former president's remains in a glass case so he could inspire future generations and influence elections.

"There are difficulties and those difficulties may make it impossible to do what they did to Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, or Mao," Maduro said.

But Maduro's backers may not need the former president's corpse to win. They are spending freely to get their message out, plastering Chávez's image in their campaign signs and advertisements. El Comandante may not be there in person but his shadow and memory still looms large.




How the Catholic Church Lost Argentina

Was it the dirty war, the social conservatism, or both?

BUENOS AIRES — Hundreds of spectators stood through the chilly night in the city's Plaza de Mayo, the iconic park in front of the Catholic cathedral and government palace, to watch a live Vatican transmission of the ascension of the Argentine pope, Francis. The mass finally began shortly after 5 a.m., to a roar of cheers and chanting in unison: ‘Argentina! Argentina!'

People wrapped themselves in the yellow and white Vatican flags being hawked alongside Francis buttons, calendars, key chains and posters.

While Francis circled St. Peter's Square in the white pope-mobile, two students of the Catholic University, Federico Chaves and Jonathan Tiberio, both 26, swapped anecdotes about the former Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, an advisor at their campus, who set up a program at the university for students to teach English and computer classes as volunteers in some of the city's poorest slums.

"We're anticipating change at the Vatican because of what he did in Argentina. He worked with everyone, atheists, homosexuals....He's shown a commitment to bring the church closer to the people, to assimilate it into life," said Chaves, an economics student.

Tiberio pointed to the then-cardinal's support for Argentina's legalization in 2002 of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, "showing an openness" that stood in stark contrast to the hardline position taken up by Argentina's conservative Catholic majority.

Indeed, Francis represented a more liberal vein in Argentina's church, appearing to respond to a leftward shift in Argentina in a bid to staunch the bleeding of his flock.

Argentina's laws ensuring lesbian, gay and transgender people's right to marriage -- which it extends to non-resident foreigners -- and adoption are among the most liberal in the world. Nearly three years since the passage of the law in July 2010, more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples have tied the knot in Argentina, according to Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentina LGBT Federation.

Meanwhile, the church's slow decline has continued. According to the Pew Forum, 76.8 percent of Argentina's population is at least nominally Catholic, but only 33 percent of Catholics interviewed in Argentina in 2010 cited religion as very important in their lives, down from 40 percent in 2002, and only 19 percent said they regularly attended mass.

But it may be the church's ambiguous stance during Argentina's last dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, that has done the most to damage the institution's credibility.

Bergoglio, who was also the head of the church's Argentine Jesuit order, has been harshly criticized for his role during this period, when as estimated 30,000 people were disappeared or killed. In continuing trials, members of the church have even been convicted for human rights crimes.

All this has devastated the church's credibility, according to José Casanova, a sociologist of religion at Georgetown University's Berkley Center. The Argentine church "compromised itself by playing a role much more tied to the powers that be," Casanova said.

Unlike the nuns and priests in El Salvador, Chile, Brazil and the Dominican Republic who spoke out against dictatorship, often becoming victims to it, very few members of Argentina's church denounced the dictatorship of Gen. Jorge Videla, currently serving multiple life sentences for human rights crimes. This near-absolute silence has been interpreted since as acquiescence, and even complicity.

Perhaps for this reason, Bergoglio's efforts to present a more charismatic church fell flat.

Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group formed in 1977 that focuses on identifying grandchildren born to mothers in captivity and appropriated by military families, has accused Bergoglio of being "part of the church that has obscured the country's history."

And for Argentina, that history is still unfolding.

A contingent of priests led by Eduardo de la Serna, a parish priest in San Francisco Solano and the coordinator of the Group of Priests in Option of Argentina's Poor, has demanded that the church cease giving communion to incarcerated ex-dictator Jorge Videla and publish the records of the military's Catholic confessors.

One Argentine priest is currently on trial on charges of working closely with torturers in a secret jail during the dictatorship, while another was recently accused of taking a newborn from his mother, one of the many baby thefts from female prisoners who were "disappeared."

Church and military hierarchies blurred as a priest and Navy captain was accused of using biblical verses to soothe pilots conducting the so-called "death flights," in which prisoners were drugged and dropped into the Río de la Plata and sea.

As the leader of Argentina's Jesuits for part of that time, Francis has had to testify in court cases surrounding the dictatorship's largest clandestine prison and torture center, the old Argentine Navy School of Mechanics, or ESMA, building, and in the case of the kidnapping of two priests in his order in 1976. The priests, whom Cardinal Bergoglio had dismissed from the order a week before their disappearance, were discovered five months later on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, drugged and partially nude.

The cardinal and his supporters have pushed back. His spokesman dismissed the charge that Bergoglio was involved with the priests' arrest and detention as "old slander." Bergoglio also testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with Videla and the head of the Navy, Emilio Massera, to ask for the priests' release. The following year, prosecutors called him to the witness stand to testify on the military junta's systematic kidnapping of children.

But even some Argentine priests admit that the church has lost credibility since the dirty war -- which may explain why it has lost so many public debates on issues as diverse as abortion and the right to die.

"The faith of the people is in God, not in priests. Argentines consider themselves Catholic if they pray to the Virgin, baptize their children, celebrate feast days. Compliance with certain ecclesiastical norms? No. They'll say, ‘what does it matter what the priest thinks?'" Father de la Serna told me.

And as much as the new pope has come to be known in recent days for his compassion and humility, the church Bergoglio led from 1998 to 2013 maintained its orthodox, conservative positions on the major social issues of the day, pitting him against President Kirchner, with whom he tangled bitterly over social issues. Amid a fierce same-sex marriage debate in 2010, Kirchner described the then-cardinal's views, expressed in a private letter lambasting same-sex marriage legislation as "a destructive claim on God's plan," as "medieval and reminiscent of the Inquisition."

The church has also alienated itself from women parishioners with its inflexible stance on reproduction. As archbishop, Bergoglio publicly opposed sex education, the free distribution of condoms, and a law passed in Buenos Aires last year permitting abortion in the case of rape. Mabel Bianco, head of the non-profit Foundation for Women's Study and Research, says that some Catholic women are turning to Protestant churches with less vocal views or simply ignoring church doctrine on reproductive issues. "The fundamentalists tend to be the high society, with incomes that afford them private services, but the poor women, they are completely alone. If they are leaving the church it is because it is not meeting their needs," she says.

Fellow bishops describe Bergoglio as always seeking dialogue and consensus, and church workers who have long known him say his private behavior and positions were different than the conservative face he showed the public. But even in public, he once washed the feet of HIV patients and spoke out against the "mafias" running human trafficking rings. He held a mass each year in the gritty, open-air plaza of the ill-reputed neighborhood of Constitución, where he once described the city's levels of poverty as "scandalous."

And poverty may be the issue Bergoglio really cares about. Father José Juan Cervantes, 42, the ebullient director of the archbishop's social outreach program at the Mother of Immigrants church in La Boca section of Buenos Aires, says Bergoglio was much more focused on working with the poor and speaking about their plight than defending church orthodoxy: "He said what he had to say, but the challenge to him wasn't about being confrontational; it was about working with the poor to build justice."

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images