BOGOTA -- Drugs, lies and murder plots. Venezuela’s compressed presidential campaign officially begins Tuesday in a race that will determine the future of the Andean nation after the death of President Hugo Chávez, who led the country for 14 years. But the accusations and innuendos being hurled between the two main candidates are threatening to turn this into one of the uglier races in recent memory.
At stake is Chávez’s legacy and the future of his socialist policies that have helped reduce poverty and close the income gap even as draconian measures have led to food shortages, runaway inflation and eroding civil liberties.
Acting President Nicolás Maduro, 50, has vowed to win the April 14 vote as a tribute to his ex-boss and advance his “Bolivarian Revolution.” And most polls give him a solid lead, as he rides the wave of sympathy generated by Chávez’s death on March 5.
His contender, Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, is hoping he can harness a demoralized opposition and attract one-time Chávez supporters who have become disillusioned by soaring crime, a stagnant economy and political polarization.
While Maduro and Capriles are fighting each other, they’re also struggling to hold their parties together, said George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University, and the author of the recently-released “We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution.”
Those internal divisions — both in the opposition and the administration — are forcing the candidate into rhetoric designed to shore-up their political base.
“Maduro and Capriles both need to prove themselves,” he said, “and show that they are the aggressive representatives of their base.”
Initially, both candidates said they would begin their campaigns in Barinas state, Chávez hometown. But over the weekend, Capriles said he would shift his kick-off to the northern state of Monagas to avoid a confrontation.
Passions have been running high as presidential policy debates seem to be taking a backseat to personal attacks.
In the days leading up to the campaign, Maduro and his allies suggested that Capriles is a homosexual drug addict who is going to put the nation’s oil wealth in the hands of the United States. They’ve also accused former U.S. diplomats of plotting to kill Capriles in hopes of destabilizing the country.
Capriles has called Maduro a lackey of Cuba’s Castro brothers, and says he has hijacked state resources and twisted the constitution to hold onto a seat that he doesn’t deserve. He’s also accused Maduro of lying about Chávez’s health and death in order to maximize political gain. On Monday, Capriles said his team had uncovered a government plot to illegally use the military to get out the vote on election day.
“Everyone knows that [Maduro] has no leadership,” Capriles said. “That’s why he needs all the power of the state.”
Capriles lost the presidency to Chávez in October by 11 points, and recent polls suggest he has a tough road ahead against Maduro. A poll late last month by Datanalisis, considered one of the more independent firms, gives Maduro a 14-point lead over Capriles.