Venezuela: Voters to decide between Maduro and Capriles

NICOLAS Maduro is certainly not the first political candidate to invoke the name and legacy of a dead leader to win votes.

But he may be the first to say that his political mentor, president Hugo Chávez, visited him from beyond the grave in the form of a little bird.

In what stands out as the most surreal moment of Venezuela’s presidential campaign – a race whose central personality is the deceased president – Maduro told the nation that Chávez’s spirit came to him as a tiny bird that flew into a chapel where he was praying.

So now at campaign rallies he whistles, just like a bird.

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An intense, compressed campaign for president has just finished in Venezuela, a month after Chávez’s death from cancer. Voters will go to the polls today to choose between Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked political successor, and Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor who just six months ago mounted an energetic but losing campaign for the presidency.

With all the temporal troubles Venezuela faces, including out-of-control crime, high inflation and production problems in the all-important oil industry, Maduro’s campaign has done its best to leverage the spiritual, emphasising his close, continuing ties to the ­deceased socialist leader.

At times, it seems as if Chávez is running again himself. At Maduro’s rallies, images of Chávez are everywhere, with the slogan “Chávez lives!”. Chávez’s old campaign songs blast from loudspeakers. His picture is displayed on huge television screens on the stage where Maduro speaks. Vendors sell keyrings with a picture of Chávez on one side and Jesus Christ on the other. Supporters sing along to a recording of Chávez belting out the national anthem.

Maduro drives home the point by telling crowds that his only mission, if he wins, will be to carry out the socialist revolution that Chávez left unfinished. He calls himself “the son of Chávez”.

Chávez was a charismatic populist and a thorn in the side of the United States, which he pilloried as an imperialist force of evil even as he reaped the financial benefits of Venezuela being the fourth-largest foreign oil supplier to the American economy.

Maduro, 50, who was Chávez’s vice-president and is now interim president, has followed his mentor’s lead. He expelled two military attachés from the US embassy, saying they were seeking to destabilise the country, and suggested that the US might have caused Chávez’s cancer. Maduro accuses former American diplomats of plotting to kill him. And he recently slammed the door on talks aimed at improving relations between the two countries.

But just in case that is not enough, he wants people to know that Chávez, who is worshiped by many as something close to a god, has come to him from beyond the grave.

Appearing on television last week from Chávez’s hometown, Sabaneta, in the western plains, he told Venezuelans that he had been praying in a small chapel when a little bird flew in, perched on a rafter and sang to him. Maduro said that he whistled back and that the bird responded. “I felt his spirit,” Maduro said. “I felt him there as if he was blessing us, telling us: ‘Today the battle begins. Go to victory.’”

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The story brought jeers from the opposition and even some raised eyebrows from supporters. But Maduro is betting there are plenty of believers among the masses. “It’s a ­message from our commander,” said Elena Quinones, 54, at a Maduro rally in the western city of San Felipe. “We have to continue the revolution with his son, which is Nicolas Maduro,” she added, evoking Chávez’s posthumous title of Comandante Eternal.

Maduro, who spent years far from the hustings as foreign minister, is not a polished campaigner, and he often seems to struggle to connect. At the San Felipe rally many ignored his speech, chatting and drinking beer. A large circle formed around a group of young people playing drums and dancing, oblivious to the candidate’s speech blasting from nearby speakers.

“Maduro is going to win through Chávez,” said Livia ­Llovera, 42, who works at a nursery. “If it was just him, he might not. The leader is Chávez. We will admire him forever.”

Crammed into just a few weeks, the campaign has turned negative fast. Maduro mocks Capriles, calling him Caprichito, a play on his name that suggests he is capricious.

He claims the opposition plans to sabotage the electrical network to disrupt the election, and he accused Capriles of preparing to abandon the campaign and move to New York. On Sunday, Maduro said a close aide to Capriles was in cahoots with plotters seeking to kill him.

Capriles, 40, has in turn called Maduro “Fresh Lies” and “the little bird’s candidate”. He has accused Maduro’s United Socialist Party of obtaining a secret code that can turn digital voting machines on and off.

Maduro is widely considered the favourite. Chávez, who dominated political life for 14 years, beat Capriles by 11 per cent in October, although Capriles received the most votes for an opposition candidate since Chávez was first elected in 1998. He died on 5 March; the winner of today’s election will complete his six-year term, which started in ­January.

Capriles has once again energised a fragmented opposition. He is a more polished campaigner than Maduro and seems to have a stronger personal connection with his followers than Maduro does, a striking turnaround since Chávez was legendary for his rapport with the masses. And while Maduro’s rallies seem to struggle against emotional exhaustion, the opposition is feeding off the pent-up energy which comes from being denied the chance to publicly celebrate the death of Chávez, who was hated by some as fiercely as he was loved by others.

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Still, Chávez’s party has a strong get-out-the-vote machine, and taps nearly unlimited government resources. Government workers are required to attend rallies. Government television stations broadcast every event, and government ministries openly take part in the campaign. At a recent rally in Maracay, a north-central city, people in red T-shirts provided by the government stood in line to get lunches distributed by ­government workers that included products such as bottled juice, made in government-run factories.

Capriles relies on financing from private companies and donors, and his campaign events are broadcast on a ­privately owned station closely allied with the opposition.

Most observers say the field is tilted strongly in Maduro’s favour, citing a court system packed with loyalists and an electoral council that refuses to curb the use of government resources in the campaign.

While Maduro may be shying away from original ideas, the campaign is not without novelty. At the Maracay rally, Maduro looked incongruously like a boy scout, in a khaki shirt, a red neckerchief and a small green backpack that he has started wearing, saying it is packed with Chávez’s revolutionary dreams. He whistled into a microphone, pointing to an imaginary bird overhead.

“Maduro is not convincing,” said Edesia Rodriguez, 58, a Capriles’ supporter at a rally for Capriles in the city of Barinas, in Chávez’s home state. “He is basing his campaign on what Chávez was. He has nothing new to offer.”

But that may be what many Chávez loyalists want. At the rally in Maracay, two die-hard Chávez supporters discussed their certainty that Maduro would be elected to carry out the leader’s legacy. “I say to God, let me live to vote again for Chávez,” said one of the men, Nayef Mussa, 67.

“For Maduro,” his friend, Marco Rojas, 43, corrected him. “Bah.” Mussa waved a hand dismissively. “It’s the same thing.”