Candidates ready to determine Venezuela’s post-Chávez future

The two men vying to lead Venezuela into the post-Hugo Chávez era registered their candidacies Monday for snap presidential elections, in acts that underscored the challenges that lay ahead for the opposition.

Surrounded by tens of thousands of supporters, Chávez’s anointed successor and interim president, Nicolás Maduro, vowed to continue the administration’s socialist programs and sweep the April 14 race as a tribute to his late boss.

“[I am] asking the father and redeemer of this Bolivarian nation, Commander Hugo Chávez, to give me the strength and the wisdom to carry out his orders in full,” Maduro, 50, said as he registered at the National Electoral Council. “I am not Chávez, but I am his son. And this entire nation is Chávez.”

As Maduro waved his registration notice in the air, surging crowds outside chanted “With Chávez and Maduro we’ll be safe!”

As pro-government crowds kept the electoral council surrounded, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles steered clear of the venue. The MUD coalition of parties, which is backing him, registered his name with no fanfare or media coverage. Monday night, Capriles said he wanted to avoid a physical confrontation between his followers and Maduro’s.

Maduro enters the race as the clear favorite, as the nation is still mourning Chávez, whose death from an undisclosed form of cancer was announced last Tuesday. The late president’s supporters have waited in line for hours to get a glimpse of his body, and state-run TV is saturated with programs about El Comandante who led the nation for 14 years.

Capriles, 40, admits the deck is stacked against him and has said friends tried to convince him that running was political suicide. But he said he couldn’t abandon the country to “Nicolás and his gang.”

He also accused the government of lying about Chávez’s health during his 18-month battle with cancer to give the country “false hope,” and then timing the announcement of his death for maximum electoral advantage.

“Death is hard, but they played with it and the pain of the country,” Capriles said. “They’re using someone who is not here because they have nothing to offer.”

A Feb.18 poll by Hinterlaces showed Maduro winning with 50 percent of the vote versus Capriles’ 36 percent. Other pollsters have reported similar results.

Capriles, 40, ran against Chávez in October promising to continue the administration’s popular social programs while restoring the separation of powers and encouraging foreign investment. He lost by 11 points. Even so, his energetic door-to-door campaign gave the opposition its best showing in 14 years and made him a national figure. In December, he was one of just three opposition candidates to hold on to their governors’ posts.

Maduro accused Capriles of being insensitive to the nation’s grief and said Chávez’s family may sue him for suggesting they hid information about his death.

“April 14 will be a day of resurrection for our Commander Chávez,” Maduro said, “and we’ll give him the biggest victory the country has ever seen.”

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, also a Chávez ally, called Capriles’ words a “declaration of war.”

The official campaign period will run from April 2-11, and analysts say the compressed timeframe will put Capriles at a disadvantage, as Maduro rides a wave of sympathy generated by Chávez’s death. The election will also fall one day after the government commemorates a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez.

“Sunday, April 13, 2002, is the date that Chavez was returned to power with an amazing groundswell and outpouring from the barrios after a short-lived coup,” Russ Dallen, the managing partner of Caracas Capital Markets, wrote subscribers. “Obviously, the government is hoping to use that memory, combined with the death of Chávez, to return his ghost in the shape of Maduro to the Presidential Palace Miraflores. It is a potent allusion that will appeal to the masses and is no accident.”

Before Chávez traveled to Cuba for his final round of treatment Dec. 10, he asked the country to rally behind Maduro. A former union organizer and the administration’s longtime foreign minister, Maduro was named vice president in October. He assumed the presidency on Friday in a move that has been questioned by the opposition and some constitutional scholars, who say the top spot should have been occupied by the head of congress until new elections.

Six other candidates are also registered for the race, the electoral council said.

Maduro has said he will follow Chávez’s economic, social and international policies. On Monday, he told the crowds he would be stepping up plans to take guns off the streets, and overhaul the hospital system.

Capriles is a former mayor and was also the country’s youngest speaker of the house. Until last year’s race against Chávez he had never lost an election. On Sunday, he asked for the late president’s supporters to think about their options.

“Nicolás is not Chávez and the country knows it,” Capriles said. “This [administration] doesn’t work; it’s bad, inefficient and doesn’t solve problems. Nicolás, I am not going to give you a free pass. I’m going to use these hands to fight for every vote.”

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