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.