Dispatch

An Election for the Birds

As Venezuelans head to the polls to replace Hugo Chávez, a crazy campaign takes a turn toward the truly bizarre.

CARACAS — Venezuela's caretaker president, Nicolás Maduro, can't be blamed for trying. As he girds himself for the forthcoming presidential election, on Sunday, April 14, Maduro has gone to great lengths to imitate his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

As he campaigns across the country, Maduro, 50, constantly wears the same red, yellow, and blue jackets that the late leader wore, and he often breaks out in song à la Chávez while addressing his followers. His stump speeches, which have a Bible-tent revival-meeting flavor, are peppered with the same insults that Chávez threw in the last election, in October, at his challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of Miranda state. Conveniently for Maduro, Capriles is once again the opposition's candidate.

But Maduro, a former bus driver, may have crossed the line when he told followers on April 2 that Chávez, who died March 5 after a two-year battle with cancer, had appeared to him in the guise of a little bird while he was praying in a chapel in the late president's hometown.

"A little bird flew in and circled above me three times," Maduro told supporters. "It landed on a beam in the church and started singing. I looked at it, and I sang to it." The bird flew overheard once more and then left the chapel, said Maduro, who told his backers that he realized that the bird was Chávez, who had given the nod to his presidential bid. The bird told me "the battle starts today. Onward to victory. You have my blessing," Maduro said.

Maduro's comments immediately went viral, leading to a deluge of jokes and, well, tweets. One tweeter wondered whether Venezuelans should leave birdseed rather than lighted candles in front of Chávez's remains. "Chávez isn't a little bird," said Alicia Ramos, 50, a seamstress in the central industrial city of La Victoria. "He is our comandante, and I was frankly offended by Maduro's remarks."

Analysts say that Maduro's avian encounter will likely have little impact on the election, but it is indicative of how crazy the Venezuelan campaign has become. "It was a gaffe but not a catastrophe," said Oscar Schemel, who heads Venezuela's Hinterlaces polling agency. "In a few days it will be forgotten."

Indeed, in a campaign this frenetic and filled with such invective, there's always another incident around the corner. And much of the reason for the vehemence and craziness of this election is its short time span. The official campaign to elect a new Venezuelan leader will have lasted only 10 days when it officially closes on April 11. Unofficially, of course, Maduro and Capriles have been running since Chávez died on March 5. The government has been loath to let people forget Chávez, holding several funeral services and massive rallies that took his remains first to one chapel and then to the military museum where he now rests. Venezuelans continue to visit him in droves.

And in a country where subtlety isn't a virtue, Maduro has made sure that his audiences know that he is the chosen heir. His campaign rallies routinely start with a recording of the former president singing the national anthem, or with a video clip of the late leader proclaiming Maduro his successor in December, before he left for Cuba and his final surgery for cancer. Onstage, Maduro often surrounds himself with children dressed up as founding father Simón Bolívar, or Chávez himself. And there's not a single campaign poster that doesn't directly reference his former boss.

Taking nothing for chance, the state television channels have also gone overboard, showing old video clips of Chávez and a rebroadcast of the best of the late president's Sunday Aló Presidente show, which often ran for hours. Making sure that no one misses the point, one of the country's state television channels commissioned a 40-second animated cartoon detailing Chávez's ascent into heaven. In the cartoon, Chávez is welcomed by such leftist luminaries as Che Guevara, Eva Perón, and former Chilean President Salvador Allende as he enters the pearly gates.

Lest anyone think that Maduro is simply tugging at Venezuelans' heartstrings, he hasn't spared the insults in attacking his challenger. Besides insinuating that the single Capriles is gay (an allegation that the governor has refuted with claims of virility), Maduro also said that the country's opposition is composed of "heirs of Hitler." Ironically, Capriles's maternal grandfather is a Polish Jew who came to the country after World War II.

Still, many Venezuelans seem to be lapping it up. Recent polls show that Maduro has up to a 20 percentage-point lead over his rival. In October, Chávez bested Capriles by a 55-to-44 margin. Maduro's lead has occurred despite soaring crime and inflation that was boosted by his decision to devalue the country's currency by a third in February. If that can't move voters to consider a change of direction, it's going to be a tough road for Capriles.

Since death has made Chávez unassailable, Capriles has focused his campaign on trying to convince voters that Maduro is no Chávez and is unfit to address the country's woes. Capriles repeatedly calls Maduro by his first name on the campaign stump and accuses the rival and members of his government of being opportunists who have socked away millions of dollars while professing to be revolutionaries.

"They talk of socialism, but it's only on the surface," Capriles said on April 3. "Look how they live, what they wear, what cars they drive. They're only skin-deep socialists." For his part, Maduro has brushed off Capriles's digs, saying that his opponent is a member of the country's bourgeoisie and is "obsessed" with him.

Meanwhile, lost in the drama of the 10-day campaign has been the revelation that a functionary of Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had somehow acquired the code to start the country's voting machines. The case is now under investigation by the National Electoral Council, whose board is controlled by Maduro supporters. "What does it mean that a PSUV tech would have the start-up code, and what else might they have that we don't know about?" asked David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

But while the opposition fears some high-tech monkeying around with eventual balloting, for now Maduro is resorting to a much more old-school method of securing the vote. During a recent campaign stop in Puerto Ayacucho, he told crowds that a centuries-old curse -- stemming from a decisive 1567 battle in which Spanish conquistadors defeated local indigenous fighters -- would afflict voters who didn't cast their ballots for him.

"If anyone in the country votes against Nicolas Maduro, he is also voting against himself," Maduro warned. "He is falling under the curse of Maracapana." In this crazy Venezuelan election, anything is possible.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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