Chávez Foe Tries to Outdo Leader’s Populist Message
Por Ezequiel Miaya y Kejal Vyas
CARACAS—The leading contender to face President Hugo Chávez in next year’s election has aimed a populist message squarely at the Venezuelan leader’s base of support, the country’s many poor, with a promise to alleviate poverty while spurring economic growth.
By borrowing from Mr. Chávez’s own playbook, political analysts say Henrique Capriles Radonski, the 39-year-old governor of the politically and economically crucial state of Miranda, represents the most formidable threat the leftist leader has yet faced.
“Chávez is not the owner of social issues,” Mr. Capriles said during a recent interview. “How can I not talk about poverty?”
Many in the South American nation seem to be listening, as Venezuelans grow critical of the country’s disappointing economic growth, soaring inflation and rampant crime. The president also faced new corruption allegations by opposition congressmen who charged Wednesday that billions of dollars China sends in a loans-for-oil deals violate the constitution. The government declined to respond to the allegations Wednesday.
With the general election scheduled for October 2012, a recent Datanalisis poll shows Mr. Capriles and Mr. Chávez running neck and neck in a two-man race.
“Chávez has never faced the kind of electoral fear that he is facing now,” said Javier Corrales, a political scientist and Venezuela expert at Amherst College. “Between 2004 and 2008, Chávez was unrivaled but now we have an opposition that is better able to challenge the government.”
. Capriles, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, was a political wunderkind who rose to a leadership position in the Venezuelan parliament in his 20s. The lawyer from a privileged background who has studied in Europe and in New York was elected mayor in 2000 of the municipality Baruta, part of greater Caracas. Eight years later, he stunned a powerful Chávez-backed opponent to win the governor’s seat in Miranda, the second-most populous state.
His success has led to clashes with Mr. Chávez. After his election as governor, Mr. Chávez stripped Mr. Capriles of some official duties and seized several state agencies to improve services, the president said. Capriles backers said the move was intended to punish the upstart.
In another fight with the Chavez administration, the state security agency held Mr. Capriles for four months while he was mayor, following accusations he had instigated a riot at the Cuban embassy during the unrest of the failed 2002 coup attempt against Mr. Chavez. Mr. Capriles denied the charges, and international human-rights advocates called him a political prisoner. He was eventually acquitted.
Though Mr. Chávez rarely mentions Mr. Capriles by name, Venezuelan state media attacks the governor as being a right-wing elitist aligned with U.S. interests. Mr. Capriles’s family owns one of the largest chains of movie theaters in the country and his own critics say his meteoric political rise owes to family connections.
Before facing Mr. Chávez in the general election, Mr. Capriles must first beat out several candidates from the country’s various opposition parties in a primary election set for February. Local polling group Datanalisis showed Mr. Capriles leading the field with 40% support.
Many poor Venezuelans have begun to sour on Mr. Chávez’s statist policies. Polls have noted large numbers of undecided voters. Still, taking on Mr. Chávez remains a tall order. The former army officer enjoys ubiquitous state-media coverage and access to billions of dollars in discretionary funds. The leader recently declared himself cancer-free after a months-long battle with the illness, and continues to hold a 53% personal approval rating, according to Datanalisis.
Mr. Capriles avoids the subject of Mr. Chávez’s somewhat secretive bout with cancer. “That’s not my problem,” he said. “I’m not a doctor or the doctor of the president. What I do believe is that it is a topic that should be made public.”
Mr. Capriles said he sees a leadership model in Brazil’s first working-class president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The ex-Brazilian leader began well-regarded social-welfare programs while adopting orthodox economic policies that have helped sustain Brazil’s robust economy.
Mr. Capriles modeled a program to counter hunger in Miranda state on the Brazilian leader’s original, and even used the same name: “Zero Hunger.” It is the centerpiece of Mr. Capriles’s campaign platform, and includes food for needy families, as well as well as housing, education and health services, while requiring participants to enroll in a job-training component. The program has provided assistance to 2,500 families in Miranda, according to the presidential hopeful’s website.
“We are not just providing handouts,” Mr. Capriles said. He added that he wouldn’t eliminate the Chavez administration’s various health, education and subsidized food programs, but would seek to improve them.
On the flip side, Mr. Capriles said, “we have the largest crude reserves in the world. There is gas. There are minerals. There are resources to plant all the food production we need. There is potential for tourism, and gold. But what we also have is political conflict from the government that won’t let any of these things advance.”Mr. Capriles called Mr. Chávez’s economic policies a failure and said he would reverse the aggressive expansion of state controls, capital flight, dependency on imports and lack of government transparency that have resulted.
“This government has taken control of practically the entire economy,” Mr. Capriles said. “I don’t believe in that model”.