CARACAS -- During his 14 years in power, Hugo Chávez has built a reputation as one of the most aggressive and effective campaigners in the hemisphere, easily winning his last three elections. “Hurricane Hugo” was known for his energetic, back-slapping style that had him plunging into throngs of supporters and electrifying crowds.
This year, however, his campaign seems to have been downgraded to a tropical storm, as Chávez, 58, has kept most appearances tightly scripted and, for the most part, close to the Miraflores presidential palace.
On Monday, he briefly high-fived supporters and hugged a baby in southern Caracas before climbing onto the red campaign truck that has been a prominent feature of his rallies.
“We’re going to give the bourgeoisie a historic lesson,” he said, as thousands of supporters cheered him on.
But with less than three weeks before the country’s crucial Oct. 7 vote, even a low-intensity Chávez is proving he can inflict serious damage.
In the last few weeks, Chávez opponent in the race, Henrique Capriles, 40, has had to face aggressive government supporters and almost daily accusations. The barrage began early this month, when a former ally produced a document that he said proved Capriles was bent on rolling out punishing economic reforms. The campaign denied the charges and said the papers were forgeries straight from the Chávez dirty-tricks machine. But it put Capriles on the defensive.
Days later, emboldened Chávez supporters forced Capriles to cancel an appearance in Caracas. They followed up by barring him from the airport in Puerto Cabello and burning one of his campaign trucks.
“It’s safe to say that the government has entered the negative phase of the campaign,” said Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University, who sees a hint of desperation in the acts. “I think it’s evidence that, within the government, there’s fear [of losing].”
The biggest blow to Capriles came last week, with the release of grainy video of Juan Carlos Caldera, one of his closest advisors, taking money from an anonymous donor and offering to set up a meeting with the candidate. Caldera said the money wasn’t intended for Capriles but his own mayoral bid, but the ruling PSUV party has called for an investigation suggesting Capriles is being backed by shadowy forces.
Capriles expelleed Caldera from his coalition, but the incident has generated doubts in corruption-weary Venezuela.
Hernando Ramirez, a Caracas construction worker, said the opposition had a chance at victory until it was “pummeled” by the scandal. “It’s shameful,” he said. “The president is going to win again.”
While most polls give Chávez a comfortable lead, the opposition dismisses many of the studies as government propaganda. Even so, one of the most respected pollsters, Datanalisis, gives Chávez 46.8 percent of the vote versus Capriles’ 34.3 percent. The Datanalisis numbers have been widely reported in the local press, but the company will not confirm the proprietary information. Consultores 21, another closely watched pollster, however, predicts a much tighter race, giving Capriles a thin lead with 47.7 percent of the vote versus Chávez’s 45.9 percent.