Venezuelan Candidates Campaign In Chavez's Long Shadow
For the first time in 14 years, Hugo Chavez is not on the ballot for a presidential election in Venezuela. The firebrand leftist died last month at 58 after a long fight with cancer.
Pollsters say the sympathy vote and the state's huge resources will translate into a big victory in Sunday's election for Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver turned government minister who had been a Chavez loyalist for 20 years.
Still, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is mounting an all-out fight for a chance to lead the oil-rich nation out of socialism.
In the gritty streets of Caracas, the capital, the crowds have been as big as ever for the young, energetic Capriles.
They go wild when Capriles, a telegenic 40-year-old governor, goes on the attack against Maduro, who became president when Chavez died.
Capriles says Maduro is part of the enchufados — those who are politically connected — describing them as a small group that pilfers public funds.
"The enchufados are a little group that takes from the people," Capriles tells the crowd.
Battling The Memory Of Chavez
It's the kind of bare-knuckle politics that the opposition seems to want — a shift from the toned-down, issues-oriented strategy Capriles used against Chavez in presidential elections last year. Then, Chavez won by more than 10 percentage points.
But this campaign is turning into perhaps even more of an uphill battle for Capriles.
Maduro is not a seasoned campaigner. But he benefits greatly from the memory Venezuelans have of Chavez, a brilliant communicator who for 14 stormy years showered petro dollars on his followers, winning their ironclad support.
Indeed, at a recent rally, Capriles acknowledges the challenges when he accepted the opposition's nomination after Chavez's death.
Capriles says that they told him they were taking him to "the slaughterhouse" and "herding" him in.
"I listened to this," Capriles says. "I'm going to think, reflect."
In the end, Capriles tells supporters, he couldn't possibly let Maduro have an easy time of taking Chavez's place and embarking on a six-year term.
At Capriles' campaign headquarters, workers zip around, answering phones and planning strategy.
Sonali Armas, a volunteer, says it's a race against time in this snap campaign.
"We have to work very, very fast, absolutely," she says. "We don't have so much time to organize."
She says Maduro is not Chavez, but he has the Chavez get-out-the-vote machine on his side: constant positive TV coverage on several state channels and the public funds used to buy voters everything from washing machines to food.
"I mean, I don't want to say that it has been easy. It has been really hard, but we still have people," Armas says. "We still have the best, which is the people that believe in us."
Tapping Into Economic Dissatisfaction
In the weeks since Chavez's death on March 5, Capriles has been crisscrossing the country, telling Venezuelans he would replace Chavez's socialism with a Brazilian-style system of capitalism and muscular social programs.
At a rally in Caracas, music blares as tens of thousands of people gather to hear him speak from a stage above one of the main avenues.
Radames Tulander, a law student in the crowd, says he's confident his candidate will win.
"The economic situation is worse every day," he says. "Everything is more expensive. Unemployment is high. The economy is in bad shape, bad shape."
Capriles is trying to tap that dissatisfaction. He tells the crowd that 20 days ago, he would have told them their chances of success were slim.
At that time, the country was overwhelmed with grief after the death of Chavez.
But he says that now the people's eyes are opening — and that victory is possible.
Still, as Capriles' campaign comes to a close, he's still falling short in the polls — in some, he's trailing Maduro by double digits.
If Maduro wins, it means that Chavismo — the eponymous leftist, self-styled anti-U.S. revolutionary movement that began with Chavez's first electoral victory in 1998 — could last until 2019.