Venezuela vote puts 'Chavismo' to critical test

Associated Press Modified: October 4, 2012 at 6:16 pm •  Published: October 4, 2012
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'Chavismo' Vulnerable

Yet this year, the Chavez show is showing cracks.

The president's popularity has slipped since 2006, when he last won re-election with 63 percent of the vote. Chavez's support has remained strongest in mid-sized towns and rural areas, while voters in cities have increasingly turned against him.

Capriles, a 40-year-old former state governor, has made inroads by pledging solutions to everyday problems such as crime, blackouts, corruption and poorly run public services.

Chavez has tried to head off the complaints both by vowing to fix the problems but also by taking the high road.

"Some people may not be pleased with our government's flaws — that they didn't fix the road, that the lights didn't come back on, that the water went out, that I haven't found work, that they haven't given me my home," he said at a rally last week. "That could be true in many cases."

"But well, in any case what's at stake on Oct. 7 isn't whether or not they paved the road," Chavez said. "No! What's at stake is much more than that, comrades. The survival of the homeland is at stake."

Chavez's style draws on an eclectic mix of influences from Latin American leaders past and present such as 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Peru's Gen. Juan Velasco and Argentina's Gen. Juan Domingo Peron.

Like the classic "caudillos" of Latin America, Chavez has presented himself as a saintly protector of the poor fighting the elites responsible for Latin America's gaping social divisions. Massive public aid programs and an intolerance of dissent have followed.

That message once appealed to Guarenas resident Belkis Rivas, but after voting for Chavez the last three elections, she said she no longer thinks he's capable of running the country.

"The ideas he has are good, but the team that works with him doesn't do the things he wants," said Rivas, who emerged onto the sidewalk outside her apartment after a throng of Chavez supporters had passed. She said the soaring homicide rate, among the highest in the world, shows his policies are failing. Last year, her nephew was murdered.

Rivas also complained about the economy, including Chavez's seizures of private businesses. "All those situations made me turn the page," she said, gesturing as if closing a book.

However, her twin sister Jovahana Rivas, a pharmacist, was still on board with the president, calling herself "100 percent Chavista."

Walls in their neighborhood are spray-painted with slogans such as "I'm voting for Chavez." But one Chavista who stood on a rooftop also held a sign reflecting displeasure with crooked officials in his government: "Chavez!!! We still love you, but shake off the two-faced ones."

Taking on 'Goliath'

On the streets of Caracas, baseball caps emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag are selling fast, hawked by vendors who carry piles of them through lines of traffic.

The caps have become Capriles' signature during his frenetic campaign, and ahead of the vote many are wearing them. For "Caprilistas," they represent hope for change.

Capriles has called the election a "David against Goliath" contest, and both sides agree that Chavez went into the race with the clear advantages of an incumbent.

In a country with 18.9 million registered voters, at least 2.4 million rely on government jobs. Millions more rely on cash handouts and other social programs known as "missions."

More than 3 million families have signed up to receive government housing. Chavez says his government has built about 250,000 homes in the past two years, and while the opposition calls those figures grossly inflated, the mere hope of receiving a free home may be a significant incentive for some voters.

Capriles has been saying that time has run out for Chavez to deliver and that the election is not a conflict between left and right, as Chavez portrays it, but a choice between progress and stagnation. Supporters have been dancing at rallies to his campaign theme song, singing: "There's a way!"

In one measure of his appeal, Capriles' rally in Caracas on Sunday was the largest the opposition has mustered in about a decade, filling the city's biggest thoroughfare, Bolivar Avenue.

"I ask: What has 21st century socialism done for Caracas?" Capriles told the crowd.

He said that if he has an ideology, it's "to overcome poverty, have jobs, not have violence, invest Venezuelans' resources here to generate opportunities."

Then Capriles targeted Chavez, while following his practice of avoiding direct references.

"The one who's in Miraflores today has cheated the Venezuelan people," Capriles said, referring to the presidential palace.

After nearly 14 years in office, Chavez clearly still enjoys the loyalty of millions of supporters. But like Belkis Rivas, enough Chavistas have moved to Capriles' side that the president faces a real chance of losing the vote. The question to be answered Sunday is how many still have faith in the Chavez promise.

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Associated Press photographer Rodrigo Abd contributed to this report.

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Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap