Hugo Chávez’s challenger and why he’s so confident

Venezuela’s Oct. 7 elections are looming and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 40, has been barnstorming the country to shore up votes. The majority of polls still have President Hugo Chávez, 58, ahead but there are also signs that the race is tightening in the home stretch. The Miami Herald caught up with Capriles on the campaign trail earlier this month in northern Venezuela.

MH: Despite the energy and the crowds you’ve seen, Chávez insists there’s no way you can win.

HC: He’s never going to admit that he might lose. It’s not his style. But Chávez doesn’t intimidate me with his threats. I know his type very well. With all their talk of an “irreversible” lead and “we’re going to win” they are trying to create this sense, particularly outside the country, that they’re going to win.

MH: But many of the polls give Chávez the lead. Do you have polls you trust?

HC: I believe in my polls, which I don’t release. I’ve used them my entire career and I’ve never lost an election. My polls say that we are in the final phase of a process where we can beat the government by a 10-point difference.

Making sense out of the polls

MH: And when did you pull into the lead, according to those polls?

HC: About a month ago. We were 10 points behind at one point. You can see it in the government’s attitude, using supposed members of the opposition to say that we’re [secretly plotting] to roll out [unpopular] economic reforms. But the state with the most social spending in the whole country was probably mine [Miranda State] when I was governor. I dedicated 70 percent of the budget toward education. You can’t get more socially oriented than that.

MH: If you do win, how are you going to make sure the government acknowledges the results?

HC: I have never lost an election because I have always guarded my votes. If you neglect a voting center or one of the election tables then they’re going to roll over you [at that location] and you will lose 100 to zero.

MH: So your strategy is to have the voting centers covered?

HC: We have to build a wave or popular force, which we’re really building for the first time now. This is our best chance to win in the last 14 years of this government. We have beaten the administration before, but we’ve never had such good conditions.

MH: And what about the independence of the National Election Council?

HC: The [Council] does what Chávez wants it to do. But the one thing it cannot do is proclaim Chávez president if he doesn’t have the votes. There’s no escaping the reality of the votes.

MH: If you take power Jan. 10, how do you run a country when all the other powers of state are stacked against you?

HC: This country is going to see its political reality change. And that change is going to benefit a lot of institutions. There are many people in public institutions who are waiting until Oct. 8 to take off their red [pro-Chávez] shirts…As for not having a majority in congress that’s simply part of democracy.

In the spirit of reconciliation?

MH: You’ve talked about being the president of all Venezuelans and told Chávez supporters they have nothing to fear from your administration. In the spirit of reconciliation would there be room for high-ranking Chávistas in your cabinet?

HC: There’s not a single good minister in this government. Each one is worse than the next. It’s a fight to see who’s the least worse. But there are many workers, who might not be in positions of responsibility, but are in middle management, who are going to have an opportunity…Let me be clear: In order to have a country of progress we need everyone. That’s key. Right now, we’re living the consequences of a Chávez administration that tries to impose its will and excludes half of all Venezuelans.

MH: Who do you look up to? Who are your political role models?

HC: Because of the country’s situation, I identify with people like [former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson] Mandela. I’m also religious so I look up to Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa and Gandhi. I like that style. I am a pacifist...But I am a follower of the Brazilian model...a country with a very deep social vision but an open economy. Our model is the worst of all: We scare away investors…But if we can create a climate of confidence then we’ll see a lot of national and international investment here.

MH: What’s your message to Venezuelans who have left the country and are in Miami or Colombia?

HC: There are two types of Venezuelans living abroad, those who went looking for opportunity and those who went because they were accused of corruption. Those who want to return but have open charges in Venezuela, they need to face justice, because I am going to fight impunity. But those who left looking for an opportunity, and still have their hearts in Venezuela, we are going to generate the conditions so they can return.

MH: What are your first priorities if you take office?

HC: Security; security and generating employment. Then we can look at electricity, water, infrastructure, roads and public transportation. We need to build many schools…There are four million Venezuelan children not in the school system. People always ask me what my first action is going to be as president, but I am not going to take just one action I have to take many. If I take just one, we’re in trouble.

MH: Realistically, how long will it take to see improved security? [Venezuela has the highest homicide rate in South America.]

HC: You’ll see the change in the first year….We need changes across the board: in the jails and courts, we need better and better-paid police. We need prevention, culture, sports, better lighting in public spaces, gun control. We need all those things to begin feeling the change in security.

Capriles to U.S.: Don’t ignore us

MH: If you had a message for the United States what would it be?

HC: The United States has made a mistake by not looking toward Latin America, it’s always very focused on what’s happening in other parts of the world. Latin America is important now, and it’s important that the United States has a relationship of equals with the region. There was so much expectation when [Barack] Obama came into power but I think the bureaucracy ate him up.

MH: What type of vice president will you be looking for?

HC: Probably someone different than me, someone who is older and is strong on the organizational front. Because I am going to be the one on the street, that’s what I like to do….I am what in the United States you would call a workaholic. I have never worked for less than 12 hours a day, every day of the week.

MH: In that sense you’re like Chávez.

HC: But I am 18 years younger. He’s tired and I’m just getting started.

Questions and answers were edited for clarity.