CARACAS, Venezuela — Less than a week after winning Venezuela’s opposition primary, Henrique Capriles Radonski suffered criticism of his Jewish roots, an allegation of homosexuality and was called a “low-life pig” by the man he will fight in October’s election, President Hugo Chavez.
To say Capriles is in for a tough few months is to put it lightly.
He is the first serious contender for the Venezuelan presidency during Chavez’s 13-year tenure and the state’s immense machinery has geared up for the fight.
State television personality Mario Silva read out what he said was a police document live on air last week, alleging that Capriles was caught having sex with a man in a car more than a decade ago. At the same time, state radio personality Adal Hernandez published an essay entitled, “The Enemy is Zionism,” on the station’s website, decrying Capriles’ alleged links to a Jewish business elite.
Capriles, a 39-year-old state governor, won the primary election with 64 percent of the vote. More than 3 million turned out, doubling analysts’ expectations. The figure represents around half of those who associate with the opposition voting. That’s good news for an opposition that has spent more than a decade hopelessly disjointed.
Ensuring he didn’t get fired up when provoked by Chavez was one of the keys to Capriles’ win: “This primary proves that Venezuelans want neither polarization nor aggressive political language,” said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela. “Capriles, with simple speech, managed to penetrate the popular sectors and young people.”
Indeed, Capriles’ former rival for the candidacy, Maria Corina Machado, frequently attacked Chavez directly, notably during January’s State of the Nation address. She called the president a “thief,” during his 10-hour address, leading even those who abhor Chavez to steer clear of such a confrontational candidate.
By contrast, Capriles rarely mentions Chavez by name, acutely aware that while the socialist maverick may not be popular in the middle-class areas Capriles is comfortable in, he is still overwhelmingly popular in many barrios. Capturing that audience, including many undecided voters who have become either bored or disillusioned with Chavez, is vital to Capriles’ chances of winning in October.
According to local pollster Luis Vicente Leon, 36 percent of Venezuelans make up the so-called “ni nis” — a Spanish expression for “neither nors” — who are undecided on who to vote for. “They are going to decide any election if they vote,” he said, adding that the ni nis are largely apolitical.
One of these is 34-year-old cleaner Jesenia Zambrano. “I don’t like the way Capriles thinks,” she said. “I think Capriles and Chavez are a little similar actually.”
Zambrano is no fan of Chavez. She intends to spoil her ballot in October’s election.
Zambrano’s concerns have been noted by George Ciccariello-Maher, assistant professor of history and politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa.
“Capriles will maintain a great deal of the accomplishments of ‘Chavismo’ and this makes it very difficult for him to make clear what the actual difference is,” he said.
Chavez has indeed achieved much in his time in power. His so-called “missions” — programs to aid the country’s poor — have enriched the lives of many in the barrios. As part of the missions, poor children’s families receive $100 per month and their grandparents receive $350 per month. There are plenty more programs like it that help boost Chavez’s popularity.
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Critics suggest though that the president is simply buying votes. Spending is likely to rise nearly 50 percent this year on last, according to the government’s planned budget.
Venezuela issued $17.5 billion worth of dollar-denominated bonds last year, more than the rest of Latin America combined. The oil barrel, Venezuela’s chief export and the lubrication to its struggling economy, jumped the $120 per barrel hurdle last week, puffing government coffers even further.
All that cash will go into more social programs over the coming months, as Chavez reminds the population of what has been achieved and that for his Bolivarian Revolution to succeed, another six-year term is necessary — and deserved.
However, voters will also be casting an eye at the country’s 26 percent annual inflation, regular electricity outages and one of the world’s highest murder rates, comparable to warzones. Reminders of these either through personal experience or thanks to the prompts from Capriles, are likely to persuade people that the opposition candidate has enough weight to take on the Latin America strongman.
“Now we have the loser,” Chavez said on Friday, welcoming his contender to the ring. “We’re going to pulverize you in the October election!”
And just in case that didn’t fire up Capriles enough, the president added: “You have a pig's tail, a pig's ears; you snort like a pig,” he said. “You're a low-life pig.”
The rhetoric also demonstrates the government’s worry. On top of the political concerns, Chavez has his health to worry about, following last year’s cancer scare. The president announced on state television Tuesday that he will be returning to the hospital for another operation in the coming days. Chavez insisted last year that he is completely recovered, though many specialists reject such a quick recovery.
Polling shows Capriles around 20 points behind Chavez. The momentum from the primary win alone could narrow that gap slightly.
But unless Capriles is able to stay strong, that gap will remain unfilled — alongside the opposition’s hopes for finally taking down the man who has defied them for 13 years and got away with calling their golden boy a “low-life pig.”