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Americas Nows 20120611 Beating the Incumbent?

06-14-2012 11:33 BJT

This October, Venezuelans will vote for a new President. Incumbent Hugo Chávez has been in power since 1998.  He’s running for a "fourth” election despite suffering from a severe form of cancer. This time the opposition is standing behind one candidate: a 39-year-old attorney. Americas Now contributing correspondent Hena Cuevas goes to Venezuela to meet the man looking to "break" Chávez's winning streak.

The official campaign does not start until July 1st, but for someone running against one of the most popular figures in Venezuela, every minute counts. Henrique Capriles Radonski, an attorney not yet 40 years old, is representing the opposition and will battle against President Hugo Chávez on October 7th.

Chávez came into power in 1998, and has easily won each election. A referendum in 2009 amended the constitution which now allows for indefinite re-election. He comments on Chávez’s 14 year rule:

"It’s a negative thing for a country to have the same person in charge. The people get used to obeying and the leader gets used to ordering. That is where tyranny and the abuse of power come from. It’s a little of what we are living in our Venezuela”.

But a year ago, 57-year-old Chávez announced he had cancer. He has received numerous treatments in Cuba, but details about his illness are shrouded in secrecy and his public appearances are far and few in between. Still, the government insists Chávez is recovering and that he is running in October. However, some reports indicate the cancer is terminal, and that Chávez only has a few more months to live. Capriles comments on Chávez’s illness:

"For the government to have to substitute their candidate would be without a doubt a weak point. A major weak point. Today we are in an even election. If the candidate is not the current Head of State, none of the leaders who are  there can beat me in the election”.

So as a competitor, Capriles is looking forward to facing Chávez:

"I want him to be the candidate. I don’t want to face anyone else. I want him to complete his cycle”.

In a country as polarized as Venezuela, it is no surprise that polls are all over the place. Some have Chávez ahead by only five points; others by as much as 30, but every single one still shows him winning over Capriles. Jose Carrasquero is a professor of Political Science at Simon Bolivar University. He says Chávez remains an extremely popular figure, and garners a lot of support:

"I believe the government is going to play with Chávez until the end basically because they know that Chávez is the only candidate that can beat Capriles at this moment. When you change Chávez and put other candidates, Capriles beats those candidates.  And for that reason the government is playing with Chávez until the end”.

But Capriles counters that he has never lost an election. Born of a wealthy family, he began his political career at age 26, becoming the youngest member of the Venezuelan Parliament. He has also been a mayor and is now the governor of the state of Miranda with a population of over 2.5 million people. He is mindful of the image he must project of identifying with the poor, who are among Chávez’s biggest supporters, instead of the elites. Even though Capriles speaks fluent English, he politely declined preferring to answer questions in Spanish. He shares the challenges in the election:

"Well, it’s an uneven battle against a government that has been in power for many years, and has no qualms using public resources to buy conscience for advertising to use the entire state apparatus for a political party: TV, radio, and the propaganda machine. It’s an uneven battle from that point of view, but I am used to uneven battles”.

He argues that socialist policies of the Chávez government have not provided real solutions to the poverty the country faces.  He says government subsidies and handouts have done more harm than good:

"The condition of poverty changes, not when you receive money to live, but when you have a social program that helps you, that shelters you, but that also provides all of the conditions for you to have a job, and become independent”.

Capriles’ main concern is dealing with the violence that’s gripping Venezuela. A 2009 government report indicated that during Chávez’s tenure, murders have nearly tripled, making Venezuela the murder capital of South America. But the situation has been going on for about 12-14 years, so can things be changed overnight? Capriles believes it can be done:

"There are short, medium, and long term measures. The effect education may have will take longer, providing employment will also have a delayed effect. But in order for the judicial branch to work, we don’t need a lot of time. Also, taking guns away from those who are armed doesn’t take a lot of time”.

He says the military is the key to curbing the problem. He thinks, "The armed forces have to be incorporated into a peace process. Brazil did it, and was successful. Venezuela can also do it”. Reducing the high crime rate and improving people’s sense of public safety is the number one priority.

But it is also about restoring confidence in the economy, which has suffered greatly in the past 14 years. Whoever becomes president needs to attract foreign investors using Venezuela’s most valuable natural resource, its oil. Venezuela is the 5th largest oil producing country in the world and has the biggest oil reserves. Capriles says he wants to use the oil to stimulate growth in other areas to jumpstart investments, "I think the oil industry is strategic in obtaining that goal, to make sure oil is the motor to diversify the Venezuelan economy”. For Carrasquero, the key also lies in political stability: "If we can do that, we’re going to have a huge investment in Venezuela. Basically, because we have a potential of development that is, I believe, the biggest in all the Latin America”.
But those who oppose Capriles say he represents a return to the old Venezuela, where only the elite, wealthy few ruled the country.

"Not so", says a former Chávez supporter, Vladimir Villegas, a journalist who hosts a daily radio talk show. He has held various positions within the Chávez government, including stints as Ambassador, as well as Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations. Since 2007, he has become highly critical of the government. He says he believes in the revolution, having co-sponsored the reformed constitution, but disagrees with the way Chávez is operating: "The government began assuming an authoritarian position, disregarding the institutions. They even started backing away from the Constitution, and personally, I couldn’t accept that”. He says today’s opposition includes those, who like him, used to support Chávez but are now looking for a change. Villegas believes "it’s not about returning to the past. It’s about jumping into the future, going to the future, building the Venezuela that all Venezuelans have dreamed of”. Carrasquero believes, "in a way Capriles is not related to the past, he’s not like talking about old politicians in Venezuela. Capriles represents a new way of doing politics”.

@ 10:00 But the question looming right now is what happens if Chávez is too ill to run and complete another 6 years. For Carrasquero, the government is being irresponsible in its insistence that Chávez is a candidate, "you know that President Chávez has cancer; that the cancer has spread all around his body, and he’s going to die sooner or later. So you are gambling with that”. He adds,

"A lot of voters would be unsure and they are going to be asking themselves: what’s going to happen if the President wins the election and 3, 4 months later he has to step down? Who will follow? Who will he leave behind? How are we going to handle that in Venezuela?”

So far Chávez has limited his public appearances, using mostly his Twitter account, further fueling rumors that he is not well enough to campaign. But in late May, in a televised meeting with his Cabinet, Chávez emphatically told the opposition they will lose: "The defeat we are going to give them doesn’t have a precedent in the political history of this country”. And last week, he made his first public appearance during a visit with a delegation from Belarus. It only lasted 15 minutes and he did not take any questions.

Carrasquero says "the problem is that people will want to see Chávez campaigning. It is not the same having a 39-year-old candidate running all around the country, promising to do things, to fix problems in Venezuela, and having a candidate giving his speech through TV, or using the media to proceed with his campaign”.

Despite the criticism, even his harshest opponents give Chávez credit for getting Venezuelans interested and involved in politics, but most importantly, for bringing the issue of poverty to the forefront. Capriles responds, "But for me that is not enough. For Venezuelans it’s not enough to identify the problem, talk about it, and give it an identity; it’s about solving the existing problems”. 

Only time will tell whether Chávez’s controversial ideas are able to survive and if his larger-than-life persona is no longer at the helm. This election will determine if the people of Venezuela want to continue with the socialist revolution he started; or if they want to give a chance to a new generation, promising to blend the old with the new. 

Hena Cuevas from Venezuela

© CCTV -- Americas Now

Editor:James |Source: CNTV

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