Girish Gupta



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Have Venezuelans tired of Hugo Chavez?
Oct. 5, 2012 — Caracas, Venezuela

Published by USA Today [PDF]

Swigging a bottle of beer before midday in a grimy cobbler's shop where he works, Cesar Jímenez argues with a colleague on Venezuelan politics.

"If socialism were so good," he says, "then why isn't the whole world socialist?"Jímenez, 40, lives and works in Petare, a huge barrio with a population of up to 3 million between two and three million people overshadowing Caracas, and is a longtime supporter of President Hugo Chávez, the self-styled socialist who has led Venezuela for 13 years.

This Sunday, however, as Chávez faces his toughest presidential election yet, Jímenez will vote instead for his challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonsk, a vibrant 40-year-old state governor.

"I've had enough," the cobbler says. "The insecurity, the broken promises."

Capriles' campaign represents the first time that Venezuela's various opposition parties have rallied behind one candidate who stands a chance against Chávez.

News polls have Chávez, 58, ahead — but not by much. And bastions of support for Chávez are now full of former supporters who complain the strongman — who claims to be one of the people — has abandoned them.

When Chávez burst into democratic politics in 1999 with bombastic speeches about socialism and anger at American "imperialism," he was swept into power with votes from Venezuela's dispossessed and middle class.

He vowed to seize Venezuela's vast oil deposits and spend the proceeds lavishly on the poor. For a time, many impoverished families received help they never had; small health clinics appeared, some public housing was built.

It was enough of a change for many rural poor to overlook increasing restrictions Chávez was placing on private economic activity and freedoms of expression and the press.

As a result, Chávez was elected twice more: in 2000 and 2006.

As Chávez has allied himself with regimes such as Iran and Cuba and hurled

insults at the United States, poverty, inflation and food prices have steadily increased. Carpriles allegas Chávez packed the oil industry with cronies making it inefficient and frightening away foreign investment that could boost production.It may be crime that hurts Chávez the most.

Drug cartels fighting for turf have given Venezuela one of the highest murder rates in the world, comparable to war zones, according to the Venezuela Violence Observatory.

Capriles has capitalized on the poor outcomes of Chávez's socialist revolution, drawing support not exclusively from the traditional anti-Chávez strongholds of the business community and better-off urban dwellers. He has also managed to woo the country's poor who have always voted for Chávez.

Capriles won the opposition primaries in a landslide six months ago and threw himself into retail politicking nationwide.He has ridden his motorbike into barrios, played basketball with teens and ingratiated himself with the poor exactly as Chávez did during his own presidential campaign 14 years ago.

Chávez's charisma, public relations skills and oratory are still with him despite many months of treatment for colon cancer. And he has unlimited access to Venzuela's oil profits, pouring cash into social projects for supporters.Even so, some in the barrios feel it is time for a change. Bolivarian socialism, Chávez's brainchild, is not doing its job, they say.

Miguel Calanon, 42, who lives in a house given to him by the government in the city of Caribia, just outside Caracas, is sticking with Chávez."My life has changed," he says. "No other government has ever helped me."

Prior to Chávez, Venezuela was ruled for 40 years by two parties that colluded with each other to divvy up the country's spoils for their main supporters, leaving little for the poor.

Chávez tapped into the disdain for the country's elites, and Capriles has worked hard to drop any links with that past despite a wealthy background. His father was a successful businessman.

A lawyer, Capriles first got involved in politics when he beat a Chávez ally in Baruta municipality to win the mayor's office and oversaw a sharp reduction in crime. He has said he admires the leadership of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who turned his country into a leader in emerging markets while maintaining social programs that lifted many out of poverty.

Both Chávez and Capriles have been darting all over Venezuela, from its borders with Brazil and Colombia through its jungles, plains and major cities, to get votes and show off their strength to the watching undecided sector of the electorate, which makes up roughly 15%, according to Luis Vicente Leon, head of Caracas-based polling firm Datanálisis.

During his career, Chávez has often been accused by opponents of heavy-handed election tactics, such as using thugs to break up the rallies of his opponents and denying them coverage on state-controlled television networks.

Three opposition activists were killed on Saturday by gunmen who, local media said, fired from a van branded with government logos.Capriles has pointed the finger for the violence directly at Chávez, who denies involvement.

Still, Capriles has managed to build an enthusiastic following once enjoyed only by Chávez. Chávez still maintains his fervent following.

"We have a duty as revolutionaries to defend our president," said Enrique Pinto, 53, at a Chávez rally in Charallave. "Another world is possible, without capitalism, just with socialism."

Filed from
Caracas, Venezuela


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© Girish Gupta