On 12 February Venezuelans chose Henrique Capriles to run against Hugo Chávez for the presidency
Last week the country held its first-ever primary for the voters to select a single, unified opposition candidate to take on Mr Chávez in October’s presidential election. Can Mr Capriles win? The governor of Miranda state certainly convinced the electorate taking part that he was the man for the job, winning more than 60% of the vote and beating Zulia governor Pablo Pérez into second place.
Capriles is young – at 39 he is 18 years younger than Chávez – and the dynamism of youth could well be a bonus and will be deployed by Capriles in an attempt to paint the powerful incumbent as an irrelevant coaster, whose revolution has turned stale and is holding the country back.
The revolution Mr Capriles is going to have to try to stop is a big, international beast. Hugo Chávez embodies Bolivarianism and has located himself firmly at the forefront of the movement. He is not planning on going anywhere any time soon. Chávez regularly hails the most famous Venezuelan, Simón Bolívar, who campaigned for independence from Spain and later became president himself, as the past and future spearhead of his politics and hero for all Latin America. Mr Chávez has forged an ideology of proud self-determination, anti-Westernism and pan-Latin Americanism based on firm socialism, all of which, he claims, invoke the spirit of Bolívar.
Chávez sees his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ as an ongoing, unfinished project that is constantly evolving. He has managed to bring much of the region along with him, and he has set up the ALBA bloc as a sort of ‘Bolivarian international club’ (see ‘Bolivarian bluster‘ – 05/02/12).
Henrique Capriles has to assure the voters that there is another way. This is all the country has known for the last 13 years. He has promised to be “a president for all Venezuelans” but his foe is the ultimate populist. He has said he will get to grips with the economy but Venezuela has been growing under Chávez. The opposition is also focusing on the real scourge of rising violence and continued high murder rates. They are also united in a mass effort to boot Chávez out of power in a pragmatic manner, totally different from the bombastic electioneering of their rival. Mr Chávez has also been making promises; he has said he will accept the result of the vote on 7 October but, at the same time, has declared that Mr Capriles cannot win and must not be allowed to take the wheels off his revolution.
Hugo Chávez is a seasoned orator and he has managed to refine a particular style of public performance that allows him to cover all manner of moods and atmospheres. On his daily morning programme Alo Presidente he can easily switch from being cocky and jovial to being condemnatory, patriotic and defiant. He recently described Mr Capriles:
“you have a pig’s tail, a pig’s ears and you snort like a pig you low-life…therefore you are a pig”
Comments such as this can seem tongue-in-cheek but Mr Capriles will be under no illusions that behind the comic asides and mercurial turns of phrase there lies a determined and barbed mind. Mr Chávez has come through recent treatment for cancer and is ready to engage again with his supporters, many of who live at the poorer end of society, and who have been helped by government social programmes and food subsidies. The president has won acclaim for his patriotism but has been criticised for hyperactive nationalisation of private companies, corruption and cronyism, and a dictatorial approach to government.
Hugo Chávez has had great success at home and abroad and will not give up on his revolución without a bloody electoral battle. Mr Capriles must be ready for the fight and show why he believes Venezuela has a better future ahead without Chávez at the helm in what are stormy regional and global waters.