But not everyone is under Capriles’ spell. Just a few doors down from a gymnasium in Quiriquire where Capriles was addressing a throng of supporters, David Zapata, 53, a construction worker, was sitting on his porch with his wife and children.
He said the last time that Chávez visited this town in Monagas state was in 2005 when he laid the first brick of the Cerro Azul cement plant that is being built with help from Iran. Seven years later, the factory is still not functioning, and Zapata said he’s been disappointed by the administration’s string of broken promises. But he doesn’t hold Chávez personally responsible.
“Chávez is the only one who has ever really cared about the poor,” he said, as he used a Capriles T-shirt as a sweat rag. “His mayors and governors and the people who surround him are worthless but I am definitely voting for him.”
Despite the administration’s problems, the plain-talking and charismatic comandante still commands fierce allegiance, analysts said, and some polls give him approval ratings of near 70 percent. Chávez is counting on that loyalty — and his party’s get-out-the-vote apparatus — to win a third term.
During a rally Sunday in Capriles’ home state of Miranda, Chávez called on his lieutenants to smash the opposition and warned that a Capriles’ victory would plunge the country into an economic crisis, and perhaps even a civil war.
Capriles’ “campaign is one of deceit. He’s the candidate of darkness and fraud,” Chávez told the crowd. “We’re going to teach Venezuela’s bourgeoisie and that majunche a lesson.”
As he ate a chicken breast off the end of a plastic fork, Capriles said the presidents’ insults only alienate voters. And he said that many people who claim to be Chávez supporters simply tow the party line for fear of losing government benefits or jobs.
“There are many people who are waiting for the eighth of October to take off their red shirts,” he said. “They’re tired of the politicking, the pressure, the fear and the blackmail.”
But there’s no denying Chávez’s home-court advantage, said Roberto Abdul with Sumate, an election watchdog group. He said Chávez has mixed state and party business so thoroughly that they were virtually indistinguishable. Public employees are often required to attend campaign rallies and government projects are inaugurated on national TV in what would pass for partisan stumping in other countries, he said.
“Measuring the problem is complicated because the abuse is so exaggerated,” Abdul said. “What we can say is that it’s a campaign that seems to have an unquantifiable amount of resources — they’re practically infinite.”
At Chávez’s campaign headquarters in Caracas, workers were busy painting the portrait of Latin American Liberator Simon Bolivar on the wall. Julio Velasquez is the head of the president’s campaign in San Augustín, a Caracas district where more than 36,000 votes are expected to be cast.
Velasquez rejected the notion that the campaign has a bottomless war-chest. He said he’s been holding raffles and distributing lotto-style scratch cards to finance activities. In addition, some of the 7 million registered voters of the ruling PSUV party donate a day’s wages every quarter.
“They [the opposition] say these things because they know they are going to lose and they’re setting the stage so that they won’t recognize the results,” Velasquez said. “But we are planning for that. We are going to take to the streets to defend the results.”
After putting on a fresh shirt and steeling himself to plow into another crowd, Capriles noted that the last time a president barnstormed the country was in 1998. The candidate was a former military officer and political neophyte named Hugo Chávez and the ruling elite mocked his grassroots campaign — until he won.
“It’s ironic because the same thing that happened to him is happening to me,” Capriles said. “When a president makes fun of the people, it’s time for a change.”