CARACAS -- Henrique Capriles has always been in a rush. When he was 11, he remembers diving into political rallies. At 25, he became the nation’s youngest speaker of the house. Now 40, he’s hoping to become Venezuela’s youngest president.
To reach that goal, Capriles will have to defeat Hugo Chávez, 58, who has been in power for 14 years and built a reputation as one of the hemisphere’s most formidable candidates.
With the Oct. 7 election looming, Capriles is still lagging in most polls. But Capriles says he’s convinced that the massive crowds he draws at his rallies aren’t being fully captured in surveys. “The true polls are on the street,” he says.
EYES ON FINISH LINE
Capriles has the wiry intensity of a long distance runner — an activity he pines for as the campaign has become all-consuming. But his rallies still seem like an endurance sport, as he plows through crowds for hours and delivers the same stump speech a half dozen times a day.
“This has been a marathon,” he told The Miami Herald earlier this month. “I can take it because I’m 40 and I like sports, and I have a reserve of energy that others don’t have.”
A self described workaholic, Capriles has said he’s too busy to have a wife, but his status as Venezuela’s most visible bachelor gives many of his events a concert-like quality, as his security team fends off screaming female fans.
He’s like a rock-star with a political résumé.
Born in Caracas in 1972 to a family of immigrants — his grandparents were Polish holocaust survivors — Capriles went to law school in Venezuela before heading to Columbia University in New York with the intention of getting a masters degree in law or foreign affairs. He says he only lasted six months before the siren call of national politics brought him home.
“I came back to work in government — in what I love,” he said. “The best university is the university of life.”
He worked at the national tax office and in private practice before seizing a chance to run for congress in 1998. It was the same year a former military officer named Hugo Chávez won his long-shot bid for the presidency.
When Capriles was named speaker of the house in 1999, he became the youngest person to ever hold the job. But it didn’t last long. Shortly after Chávez took office, the nation approved a constitutional assembly, which rewrote the magna-carta and dissolved the legislative body.
By 2000, however, Capriles had rebounded, becoming mayor of Baruta municipality, which is part of greater Caracas.
There, too, he seized the national spotlight, but not for the right reasons.
In the wake of a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez, an aggressive hoard descended on the Cuban embassy to try to drum out government officials suspected of hiding there. Capriles was among the mob. Less than two days later, Chávez was restored to power and the government accused Capriles of abetting the aggressors and not calling on the Baruta police to restrain the crowds.
Rather than flee the country, as many did, Capriles faced the accusations from jail. The charges were eventually dropped in 2006.
Capriles says it was an important period of his life. In prison for 120 days, he found solace in the Virgen del Valle — a manifestation of the Virgin Mary associated with Venezuela’s Margarita Island.