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.
A former tank commander, Chávez is used to rolling over rivals — not being forced into hand-to-hand combat. During the last election, in 2006, he won 62.8 percent of the vote versus Manuel Rosales’ 37 percent.
But this year is different. The president’s attempts to blame previous administrations for soaring crime, double-digit inflation and food shortages are ringing hollow after holding the top job since 1999.
In addition, Chávez entered this race as he was recovering from an undisclosed form of cancer. While he claims he has completely overcome the illness, his appearances are usually confined to television studios or podiums high above the crowd, which have many speculating that he’s watching his health as carefully as his campaign.
Over the weekend, during one of his few campaign stop outside of Caracas, in San Fernando de Apure in central Venezuela, Chávez nearly wept as he rattled off all the towns he would like to visit.
“But as you know, I can’t walk the streets of San Fernando and I can’t make that trip right now,” he told thousands of supporters. He went on to ask God to give him a chance to be “free as the wind” for a few years, after he finished remaking the nation.
Chávez says he needs another six-year term to cement the gains of his 21st Century Socialist Revolution. He’s pledged to step up his trademark social programs — they include free housing and health care — increase minimum wage and strengthen the country’s ties with China.
He may be right to double down on his policies. Many surveys show Chávez with approval ratings in excess of 50 percent. And he still has a rabid core of supporters.
Yoander Vasquez, 25, works at a government-owned cement plant in Monagas state, where Chávez won 71 percent of the vote in 2006.
As Vasquez struggled to explain Chávez’s appeal, he finally compared him to a former Colombian drug kingpin.
“Chávez is like Pablo Escobar,” he said. “He’s simply fearless…The opposition will never win here again.”
The president routinely denigrates Capriles, who he calls a “mediocre boot-licker,” and says he won’t stoop to having a televised debate with him. He warns that Capriles wants to gut social spending and roll out a wave of neoliberal economic reforms that would lead to chaos and might even spark a civil war.
Last week, Chávez blamed Capriles’ campaigning in government strongholds for the recent street violence.
“Where does this violence come from historically speaking? From the bourgeoisie,” Chávez said. “They only defend democracy when it’s convenient.”
The president has also raised fears of a foreign destabilization campaign. In August, Chávez announced the arrest of a U.S. citizen and former marine, who he said may be a “mercenary” bent on disrupting the elections. Early this month, authorities detained a U.S. flagged boat in the port of Maracaibo on arms-trafficking suspicions. The sailors were eventually released without charges, but the investigation into the “mercenary” is ongoing.
Capriles is trying to stay above the fray. Campaigning in Barquisimetro, in northwestern Venezuela on Friday, he asked Chávez not to drag the country into his “swamp.”
“End the dirty war and the insults,” he said, “because what we’re building, with our own hands and lots of effort and work, is something big and beautiful — the Venezuela of the future.”
But the opposition is bracing its supporters for more surprises.
“We’re going to see new videos, new [breaks in the ranks] and the government wants to impose violence,” Ismael García, an opposition congressman, told Globovisión on Sunday. “The desperation of their acts demonstrates that they’re losing the election.”
Like any good strategist, Chávez has been cryptic about the final phase of his campaign, only saying that it would be “multi-pronged” and “creative.” If he has any doubts about victory, he’s savvy enough not to admit them in public.
“When that mediocre guy gets into the ring he’s not going to last one round,” Chávez predicted recently. “It’s going to be a devastating knockout.”
Andrew Rosati contributed to this report from Caracas.