Venezuela has kicked off a presidential election campaign whose charismatic central figures are a governor and a ghost. The victor, however, may well be the flesh and blood heir of a revolutionary regime left to grapple with real and deepening crises.
The opposition has seized upon the death of President Hugo Chávez last week as an opportunity to break the 14-year grip on power of the self-styled socialist revolutionary and send their candidate, state Governor Henrique Capriles, to the Miraflores palace in elections set for April 14. But the outpouring of grief following El Comandante’s death from cancer showed the polarizing figure will continue to grip the national psyche.
Venezuelans either lionized or loathed their populist president. He was a hero to millions for using the country’s oil wealth to finance welfare programs. Chávez won October’s vote with an 11-point lead against Capriles, whose 44 percent tally was nonetheless the best performance yet against Chávez in an election. To his detractors, he was an autocrat who trampled constitutional rights, nationalized up to 1,000 companies and scared off foreign investment.
Capriles will seek to convince the mostly poor Venezuelans who supported Chávez that his regime produced mixed results at best and that their lofty revolutionary dreams are largely unfulfilled. The centrist candidate, who looks to Brazil for a model of social inclusion, argues it’s time to address down-to-earth economic woes, corruption and crime that plague this OPEC nation with the world’s largest oil reserves.
I watched Chávez sow the seeds of his revolution 20 years ago. On Feb. 4, 1992, as the new Reuters bureau chief in Caracas, tracer fire in the nighttime sky lured me to the presidential residence, where I witnessed police fighting rebel troops loyal to a paratrooper named Hugo Chávez. The rebellion was quickly crushed and Chávez jailed. Asked whether he was shelving his bid for power, he replied, “for now.”