A post-Chavez solution for Venezuela

It has felt like a long, bruising fight. In fact, the campaign to win Venezuela’s presidential election on Sunday, 40 days after Hugo Chavez’s announced death, has been a short-run, bizarre conflict.

Acting President Nicolas Maduro and Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles could hardly be more different. Mr. Maduro, 50, former bus driver and yes-man foreign affairs minister for Comandante Chavez, has limited education and elective experience. Breaking the law and ignoring the constitution as necessary, he can best be described as a bland yet evil personality.

Charismatic challenger Mr. Capriles, 40, a lawyer twice elected mayor of the metropolitan Caracas municipality Baruta and subsequently twice elected governor of Miranda state, has built a solid, spotless reputation in Venezuela’s murky politics. In 2000, he co-founded reformist center-right party, Primero Justicia, although he occasionally describes his personal orientation as center-left. Mr. Capriles amassed 45 percent of the vote, losing to Chavez in last October’s presidential election, despite massive spending and multiple illegalities by Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Mr. Capriles insists he is not the “opposition” but the “solution,” and has a strong action and program record. When mayor of Baruta, his fight against endemic crime reduced incidents from 4,700 in 2000 to fewer than 1,000 in 2007, while violent crime boomed in the rest of Caracas. As governor of Miranda, he launched 39 new schools in three years, in sharp contrast to his predecessor Diosdado Cabello, who built seven in four years.

PSUV candidate Mr. Maduro typically encounters small, unenthusiastic crowds wherever he campaigns. Though elected three times to the national assembly on the Chavista ticket, he is relatively inexperienced, widely unknown and totally lacking charisma. Mr. Cabello, the other senior PSUV leader and current National Assembly president, is constitutionally designated acting president, but then Mr. Maduro unconstitutionally deposed him. Understandably, Mr. Cabello is scarcely participating and reportedly not encouraging his followers to support Chavez’s would-be successor.

During this brief but heated campaign, Mr. Capriles has emphasized plans and programs, plus Chavista failures. He denounces, and has committed to end, pervasive and despised Cuban involvement in Venezuelan life government, intelligence, military and medicine. Vowing to curtail the 100,000 barrel per day Cuban oil allocation, a proven wealth builder for Fidel Castro and friends, he rails against free and deeply discounted oil deals with countries ranging from Argentina, Bolivia and Cuba to North Korea.

Mr. Capriles admires former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s free-market commercial and social-welfare policies. He roundly criticizes the Chavez-Maduro regime’s broken promises, notably in education and public health, and promises to overhaul the complicated, economy-choking currency-exchange system.

Mr. Maduro’s race is bereft of ideas, noteworthy only for absurd statements and incidents. It was predictable the inexperienced and unknown Mr. Maduro, trained for two years in Havana, would align himself closely to the late dictator and the Castros.

The bloopers started early: Chavez was instrumental in the election of the first Latin American pope.

Later, the pajarito (little bird) incident surprised the nation. Mr. Maduro recounted on national television how, while praying, a bird landed and sang on a church beam in Chavez’s hometown. Mr. Maduro demonstrated how he whistled to the bird, creating meaningful communication with Hugo Chavez’s spirit. (The comandante considered himself a rich baritone.) Cartoons, news stories and op-eds in the non-Chavista media lampooned the incident for weeks.

Throughout the campaign, he has repeatedly declared Chavez was infected with cancer, blaming an “important foreign power,” clearly meaning the United States. Frequently accusing bachelor and well-known ladies’ man Mr. Capriles of being homosexual, Mr. Maduro invites his wife, Cilia, on stage at rallies and kisses her, proving his manliness, then utters more derogatory remarks and innuendos.

Delusionary incidents aside, Mr. Maduro has never discussed any plans for governing Venezuela, if elected. His bizarre statements and actions surely explain why Mr. Maduro’s handlers have never responded to Mr. Capriles’ repeated challenges to debate.

Opposition pollster Datamatica, conducting a daily poll beginning March 7, saw preference for Mr. Maduro plunge from 55 percent to 35.9 percent by April 5, while Mr. Capriles’ climbed from the low 20s to 39.7 percent, with 24 percent undecided. Clearly, the acting president’s public performances were a significant factor.

The survey’s 5 percent statistical margin of error, indicates the race is extremely close. Whatever the outcome, as of now and for the past month, the momentum is clearly with Mr. Capriles. Crowd size is a clear indicator. Radically different from numerically modest PSUV rallies, Mr. Capriles’ reception is overwhelming. At last Sunday’s campaign rally attended by hundreds of thousands in Caracas, he repeatedly said he had seen the polls and taunted Mr. Maduro: “You may win in Havana, but we will win in Venezuela!”

Given such radically different candidates, a majority of voting Venezuelan selecting Mr. Maduro as their president is hardly imaginable. However, there exist numerous illegalities the Chavistas may employ. As in every election since 1998, Chavez’s first election, they will try everything possible to elect their candidate.

The Capriles campaign thinks it has the momentum to win and can counter any PSUV ploys. This time, given the great contrasts between Mr. Capriles and Mr. Maduro, it is possible the clearly better man could win.

John R. Thomson is a former diplomat, journalist and analyst. Norman Pino De Lion is a former ambassador and frequent contributor to Venezuelan newspapers.

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