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Venezuelan election could be closer than expected
Apr. 14, 2013 — Barinas, Venezuela

Published by USA Today

Sitting and watching friends play dominoes in the city's main square, Ángel Sánchez admits he has always been and always will be a supporter of Hugo Chávez, the firebrand socialist who led Venezuela for 14 years until his death last month.

In Chávez's absence, power passed to vice president and handpicked successor Nicolás Maduro. The 50-year-old former bus driver is competing in Sunday's presidential election against Henrique Capriles Radonski, 40, a state governor who lost to Chávez in October.

"I'd vote for Chávez if he were alive, of course," said Sánchez, a 60-year-old farmer who says he will vote for Capriles on Sunday. "But we need drastic change now."

Maduro hopes to tap the late leader's popularity to win the special election, but that will mean inheriting a wide range of problems left behind by Chávez, troubles that have been harped on by opposition challenger Capriles.

Although he's still favored, Maduro's early big lead in opinion polls sharply narrowed in the past week as Venezuelans grappled with a litany of woes many blame on Chávez's mismanagement of the economy and infrastructure: chronic power outages, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages. Add to that rampant crime: Venezuela has among the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates.

Chávez was a dazzling figure to his supporters — often seen as the man who seized wealth and claimed it was for the poor. Because of his popularity, he's not often blamed for the country's slide into economic chaos.

Maduro may find a different sentiment among previous Chávez supporters who have now turned to Capriles to solve the country's woes.

"Chávez understood this country," Sánchez says. "Maduro is very different. He's not smart enough."

For friend and retired oil worker José López, 66, "the era of Chávez is over. Chávez was a total disaster. Many people don't interpret it as such because they receive these red T-shirts and gifts from the government."

Barinas is the "cradle" of Chávez's revolution, in his own words. The president was born in the sweltering plains in 1954, growing up in a dirt-floor mud hut with his grandmother.

The area is staunchly "Chavista," and many in the state remember the young Chávez.

Flor Figueredo, 67, lives just opposite from the house where the young Chávez grew up. She remembers him running around the streets, playing with friends.

"He left a great legacy," Figueredo says. "Maduro isn't Chávez, but with the help of the people, he'll continue the revolution."

Before leaving Caracas for his fourth cancer operation in December, Chávez chose Maduro as his successor. Maduro has tried to follow in his mentor's ways.

On March 5, hours before announcing the death of "the Comandante," Maduro expelled two U.S. diplomats from Venezuela in an anti-imperialist rant familiar to those who listened Chávez rail against the West.

Maduro's pronouncements have become ever more surreal. Speaking on state television, Maduro said that Chávez appeared to him as a small bird, and he imitated the bird's calling and the sound of its wings flapping as he spoke.

"It sang and I responded with a song, and the bird took flight, circled around once and then flew away," he said. "I felt the spirit and blessings of Comandante Chávez for this battle."

Maduro even suggested that Chávez had a posthumous hand in the selection of the first Latin American as pope.

"We know that our Comandante ascended to heaven and is face-to-face with Christ," Maduro said. "Something influenced the choice of a South American pope."

Maduro's campaign relies heavily upon Chávez, whose image appears on almost all campaign material and is invoked at every opportunity by Maduro, who calls himself the "son of Chávez."

The state of Barinas is in Los Llanos, a land famous for cowboys and revolutionaries. Its government is notoriously corrupt and run by Chávez relatives. Its governor, Adán Chávez, is the late president's brother.

Speaking from his office, Capriles' campaign chief for the state, Jose Luis Machin Machin, said that he has a tough job ahead of him.

"We were governed by Chávez's father for eight years," he said. "The governor now is Chávez's brother; another brother is president of the national electric corporation; other family members have high-level positions across the government."

Manchin cited another family member working in the upper echelons of state oil company PDVSA, another is the president of the Zamora football club in Barinas.

"We're talking about all the political and economic power here," he said. "We have nepotism here in Barinas. We're governed by one family. That family has extraordinary power."

Back in the capital city's main square, López echoed the campaign chief's views.

"All of these people have jumped on the Chávez plane," he said. "They're not in power because they're competent leaders! Chávez's family was once — once! — a poor family. Now they have enormous riches. No one knows how they earned all this money."

He added: "Capriles is offering something that can be achieved. Capriles' time has come."

Filed from
Barinas, Venezuela






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© Girish Gupta