Sparks fly in short campaign in Venezuela

Mar 29, 2013, 8:04 PM EDT
In this March 21, 2013 photo, released by Miraflores Presidential Press Office, Venezuela’s acting President Nicolas Maduro fist bumps a worker of the state-run oil company PDVSA during a visit to the Orinoco oil belt in Venezuela.
(AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Office)


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — It's Holy Week in Venezuela, a time when millions traditionally take a welcome pause from work and politics to go on vacation. Yet that hasn't stopped Venezuela's time-pressed presidential candidates from sprinting through the holidays toward an April 14 election to replace the late Hugo Chavez, as they try to define both themselves and each other within weeks.
Both Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor, and opposition Gov. Henrique Capriles face the challenge of spelling out a vision for a future without Chavez, who dominated this 28 million-person country like few other leaders have during his 14 years in power.
That's produced a race sometimes jarring in its aggressiveness and exhausting in its tempo. Both candidates have led multiple rallies each day and used deeply personal language against each other. Maduro has even threatened to have Capriles imprisoned for questioning whether Chavez really died on March 5, as the government had announced.
Shannon O'Neil, a Latin American studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said emotion over Chavez's death will dominate this election.
Maduro has used the government's enormous bureaucracy and its media to tie himself closely to Chavez, with the late president's image often hung on podiums in front of the candidate or serving as a backdrop. Maduro also has the support of the socialist party's governors in 20 of Venezuela's 23 states, O'Neil noted.
"They are going to use a full court press to ensure that Maduro is elected," she said.
Maduro's challenge has been keeping that public sympathy for Chavez alive, a task he's tackled through sheer repetition and unending eulogy. He pays homage to the late president day in and day out, while warning that Chavez's populist programs benefiting Venezuela's poor majority are at risk. One website has even been counting the times Maduro mentions Chavez's name: nearly 5,000 instances from March 5 to 27.
"Maduro is not Chavez," said Andres Izarra, a former Chavez information minister who's on Maduro's campaign team. "Maduro is his son. Maduro is the one that Chavez said will carry his flag, carry on his legacy. ... That's how he'll win."
The 50-year-old Maduro has also adopted Chavez's confrontational language, echoing the attacks on what Chavez used to call his "historical enemies" — the "imperialists" in the U.S. government and the "oligarchs" of Venezuela's opposition. Critics said Chavez used the rhetoric to keep the country polarized and his supporters agitated while diverting attention from problems at home.
"I alert all the people about the oligarchy and its obsession to destroy the Bolivarian revolution that our comandante Chavez built, to destroy democracy," Maduro told a March 16 rally. "They have already begun with dollars financed by the imperialist elites."
Working in Maduro's advantage also is the date of the vote, just three days after the anniversary of a 2002 coup that briefly dislodged Chavez from power.
"That event is sort of Chavismo's most important, most symbolic moment because it shows them as heroic and shows the opposition as anti-democratic," said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank who has closely studied Venezuela. "The symbolism is really perfect."
Capriles, for his part, has barely had time to rest after losing a hard-fought race to Chavez in October, when he received 45 percent of the vote, and then campaigning in December for re-election as governor of Miranda state. He hasn't let up this month, traveling from city to city and even inviting reporters to join him in a traditional Nazarene procession in the Caracas slum of Petare.
At passionate rallies that take on the feel of rock concerts, Capriles has shouted that "Maduro is not Chavez" while calling attention to Venezuela's high crime rate, its overvalued currency, its overreliance on food imports and its 22 percent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America. He's also tried to assure Chavez supporters that he will not touch their many social programs.
Yet the 40-year-old candidate is short of funding, time and, maybe, votes. A recent survey by the independent polling firm Datanalisis showed Capriles trailed Maduro 49 percent to 35 percent in a sampling of 800 voters from March 11-13. The poll had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
That may explain why the opposition candidate has shed last fall's turn-the-cheek approach for a more confrontational style. He's accused Maduro of shamelessly capitalizing on Chavez's legacy and ridiculed his opponent, a tall and physically imposing former union leader, as an "oaf" incapable of fixing the country.
Mariana Bacalao, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela, said the abbreviated campaign has pushed both candidates to turn up the rhetoric for maximum effect with each appearance.
"Capriles has to make a quick impression," Bacalao said
Capriles also has to strike the delicate balance of attacking Chavez's record — but not Chavez.
The Datanalisis poll found that 79 percent of Venezuelans had a positive image of Chavez, while only 55 percent thought positively of Maduro. At the same time, 56 percent had a positive image of the country's situation, but only 47 percent felt the same about the economy.
Campaign adviser Oswaldo Ramirez acknowledged that Capriles must "confront those responsible for public policy and those responsible for 14 years of bad management without touching Hugo Chavez with so much as a feather."
"Hugo Chavez is now the opposition's sword of Damocles. You cannot attack him," Ramirez said.
He conceded that Capriles will have difficulty reaching the millions of Venezuelans who now believe it's the government's responsibility to provide their basic needs — and who are fed a steady diet of Maduro's broadsides on state-controlled media.
Izarra said Capriles' strategy will backfire.
"Capriles is disrespecting the people. They are accusing him of being disrespectful, and he made a big mistake with that," Izarra said. "People are very sensitive to what you say about Chavez now. People are looking for sympathy."
Government officials, meanwhile, preach unity — and optimism — at least for their side of this country's gaping political divide, which appears to have grown wider with the populist leader's death, said Information Minister Ernesto Villegas.
"It turns out the Chavez movement without Chavez is even more Chavista," Villegas said.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jack Chang contributed to this report.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter:
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.