BOGOTA -- One is a former union organizer and foreign minister who skipped university to pursue politics. He rose to fame as the loyal soldier of late President Hugo Chávez. The other is a governor and lawyer who spent four months in jail. He prides himself on defeating every rival he has ever faced except one: Chávez.
As Venezuela barrels toward snap elections Sunday, one of these two men — Nicolás Maduro and Henrique Capriles — will be the first to occupy the seat Chávez owned for 14 years.
When the socialist firebrand died March 5 after an 18-month battle with cancer, he left a nation in mourning, but also facing shortages, soaring inflation and addicted to social projects that some fear are unsustainable. Rich in oil, Venezuela is also saddled with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
“This country is a tinderbox,” said María Teresa Romero, a political science professor at Venezuela’s Central University. “Whoever wins the presidency is going to have to deal with it.”
Polls from last month show Maduro, 50, with a strong lead as he rides the wave of sympathy generated by Chávez’s death. On the campaign trail, he has vowed to continue his boss’s socialist polices and defend his popular “missions,” including subsidized housing, free healthcare and education.
But Capriles, 40, has been drawing large crowds — even in Chávez strongholds — and claims that internal polls put him in the lead. In October, Capriles lost to Chávez by 11 points, but it was the best showing ever against the popular president.
“Chávez was an electoral giant and Capriles is the only person who has ever been able to take on that monster and even make him fear that he might lose,” said Oswaldo Ramírez with the ORC political consulting group. “Nicolás Maduro is no Hugo Chávez.”
On the trail, Maduro has been channeling his boss, railing against the “oligarchy” and Yankee imperialism.
The opposition “is obsessed with destroying the revolution that Chávez built, with destroying democracy,” Maduro said recently. “Now they are trying to destroy us also so that we cannot fulfill our pledge...to keep protecting the people.”
Just hours before announcing Chávez’s death, Maduro expelled two U.S. diplomats he said were conspiring with the military. He’s also accused two former U.S. officials of plotting to murder Capriles in hopes of creating chaos.
But some expect the aggressive posturing to dissipate after the elections.
United States Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., has known Maduro for 14 years and describes him as an affable bridge-builder who likes to play softball.
“I think he understands and realizes, as we do, that Venezuela is important to all of Latin America and important to the United States,” said Meeks, who was part of the small U.S. delegation that attended Chávez’s funeral. “I think it helps our entire hemisphere if the U.S. and Venezuela have better relations.”
The two countries have not had ambassadors since 2010, but the U.S. State Department said it held conversations with Maduro in November to explore renewing relations. But those efforts seem to have stalled.
“Campaigns are campaigns,” Meeks said of Maduro’s anti-U.S. rhetoric. “In my brief conversation with him [at the funeral], he was very open to the idea of better ties.”
Charles Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2002-2004, disputes that view. He recalls when then-legislator Maduro created a stir by passing around a video he claimed showed the regional CIA chief arriving in Venezuela. It turned out to be a U.S. business executive interested in buying a paper company, Shapiro said.
“My sense is that Maduro is deeply suspicious of the United States, of capitalism and of the international democratic community,” Shapiro said. “The idea that he would be a pragmatist would surprise me.”
Maduro was born in Caracas in 1962 to a Colombian mother. More interested in activism than the classroom, he left college without a degree and worked as a bodyguard and bus driver before becoming a union organizer for the Caracas Metro system. His political path ultimately led him to Chávez, the young military officer who tried to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. That’s where Maduro also met his longtime partner Cilia Flores, who is also the attorney general.
When Chávez won the presidency in 1998, Maduro was by his side and went on to help rewrite the constitution and eventually become the head of the National Assembly. But he became an international figure in 2006, when Chávez tapped him to be foreign minister. There, Maduro helped oversee the creation of regional blocs designed to mitigate U.S. influence in the region.
As foreign minister, he wasn’t known for being a consensus builder, said Eloy Torres, a career-diplomat from 1984-2012 who worked extensively with Maduro.
“He doesn’t look for agreements unless he absolutely has to,” Torres said. “And now he’s a prisoner to his own rhetoric and the radical groups that are supporting him.”
On the campaign trail Maduro has one distinct advantage: Chávez’s blessing. On Dec. 8, shortly before travelling to Cuba for his final round of cancer treatment, Chávez asked the nation to rally behind his recently appointed vice president if new elections were triggered. On the stump, Maduro has been showing that video. He has called himself Chávez’s “son” and told crowds that the late leader appeared to him as a bird and urged him to victory.
“Maduro is invoking Chávez’s name every chance he gets,” Torres said. “It’s as if the dead leader is his passport to victory.”
The day after Maduro kicked off his campaign in Barinas, Chávez’s home state, Capriles followed. The size and energy of the crowds in the government stronghold surprised many.
Capriles told the throngs that he “respected” their hometown hero but that Maduro wasn’t entitled to the presidency.
“Leadership is not inherited,” Capriles said. “You have to sweat for it and build it alongside the people.”
As the governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-most populous state, Capriles has honed a reputation as a workaholic willing to cross party lines to get things done. During last year’s campaign, he was often charged with being too conciliatory.
This time, the gloves are off. Capriles has accused Maduro of lying about Chávez’s health and using his death to maximize political gain. He has also accused the military of being part of the government’s get-out-the-vote machine, and suggested ruling party officials are going to tamper with voting machines.
Vicente Díaz, the only opposition member of the National Electoral Council, told the Agence France-Presse news service that the vote itself would be fair, but that the unequal footing of the two campaigns makes the election “profoundly antidemocratic.”
“We don’t have the economic resources, the institutions or the ministries,” Capriles told the crowd. “We don’t have public workers that we can force to attend our political rallies. But we do have hope, faith and courage to take this country forward.”
Capriles caught global attention in 2012 when he won an opposition primary that gave him the unenviable task of facing Chávez at the polls. The race took him on a grueling tour to villages that had never seen a presidential candidate before. Even so, he lost, and his decision to accept defeat rather than protest the results, brought rebukes from many of his allies. Two months later, Capriles defended his job as governor of Miranda against Elías Jaua, Chávez vice president and handpicked contender.
Chávez’s allies swept 20 out of 23 governors’ posts in that election, but Capriles kept his job.
As the presidential race was heating up, Capriles reminded voters that in 2008 he had beat another Chávez vice president, Diosdado Cabello, for the Miranda post. And he issued a challenge to then-Vice President Maduro.
“I’ve done-in two vice presidents,” Capriles said, sliding a finger across his throat. “Send me the third one.”
Born in Caracas in 1972 to a family of émigrés — his grandparents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust — Capriles went to law school in Venezuela before briefly attending Columbia University in New York. In 1998, he ran for congress and became the country’s youngest speaker of the house at 25. That same year, Chávez became president and won the right to dissolve the legislature. Capriles was out of a job.
But by 2000, he had rebounded, becoming the mayor of Baruta — part of greater Caracas. In the wake of a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez, a mob surrounded the Cuban embassy to drum out government officials taking refuge there. When Chávez returned to power days later, the courts accused Capriles of abetting the mob and not calling on the Baruta police. Capriles maintained his innocence but spent 120 days in jail. The charges were eventually dropped.
Ramírez, with ORC consulting, has known Capriles for more than a decade. He said the wiry runner can be so “pensive” that he often seems standoffish. And he knows how to learn from mistakes.
This time around, Capriles has shuffled top advisors, is relying more on his opposition allies, and has been far more combative, he said.
“So maybe he doesn’t bat a home run, but makes it to second or third base before he’s out,” Ramírez said. “He’s going to lose fighting, not because he gave up.”