WASHINGTON — Hugo Chávez regularly denounced his political opponents as “traitors,” “fascists,” “criminals,” “mafia” and “lackeys of the United States.” His handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has already picked up Chávez’s mantle, disparaging his rival in the upcoming special election with homophobic remarks and saying that he was of “doubtful manliness.”
When Chávez was alive, the target of those remarks, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, might have ignored them. In announcing his plans to challenge Maduro in the April 14 election, Capriles made it perfectly clear how he is approaching this contest: “Nicolas,” he said, speaking directly to Maduro, “I am not going to leave you an open road, friend. You will have to defeat me with votes. I am going to fight with these hands. I’ll fight for each vote.”
It was probably the most combative, unequivocal and forceful speech Capriles has ever given. The 40-year-old governor of the state of Miranda was effectively calling Chávez’s successor out: You are not Chávez, and this election will be different. At past political rallies, Capriles invoked Chávez’s name, but he did so in a way that wouldn’t alienate undecided voters or disgruntled Chavistas who were open to switching allegiances. At an event I attended in late 2009, he told the crowd, “I don’t care what political party you are from.” Then he recounted a story about a voter he had recently met who confessed that he loved both Capriles and Chávez. The governor responded, “That’s OK. Sometimes a man falls in love with two or three women or a woman falls in love with two or three men. It’s all right — it’s part of life.”
Now there’s no more talk of love. (After Maduro was sworn in as acting president, Capriles held a news conference and reminded him: “Nicolás, no one elected you president. The people didn’t vote for you, boy.”) His aggressive posture may be a byproduct of the contest itself: The government has announced that the official campaign will begin on April 2 and must end on April 11. That means the opposition will only have 10 days for ads, major rallies, and events, even while the country’s government-controlled media runs around-the-clock coverage lionizing Chávez (and by extension, the man Chávez said should follow him). Maduro, in fact, has been campaigning for months. Capriles didn’t shy away from charging Maduro with downplaying Chávez’s deteriorating health for weeks so that he could prepare for his own presidential run. Venezuela’s political opposition has no more time for subtext. Capriles has calculated that he must make the case directly and aim it squarely at Chávez’s political heirs.
His calculation also reflects his long odds. As the Comandante’s chosen successor, Maduro has the only endorsement that counts. On Dec. 8, in what would be his final address to the nation, Chávez told Venezuelans to elect Maduro if he failed to return to Miraflores Palace. “I ask you that from the heart,” said Chávez. With the mixture of grief, sadness and nostalgia for the late leader at a fever pitch, Maduro’s election may be the equivalent of Chávez’s final edict. (In early polls, the acting president has opened up a more than 10-point lead on Capriles.) Maduro now also enjoys the full weight of the Venezuelan state apparatus, the government’s oil-rich slush funds, and an obedient media. (The owners of the last television station critical of Chávez’s government are under pressure to sell their stakes to a company connected to the government.) But Maduro isn’t taking any chance that people forget he was Chávez’s man. At his events, crowds are brought to a frenzy by loudspeakers blasting Chávez’s voice singing the national anthem. And then Maduro assures them: “I am not Chávez, but I am his son!”