Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has loomed larger than life over his oil-rich country for nearly 14 years, doling out healthcare and houses and university admissions to supporters of his “Bolivarian Revolution” aimed at creating history’s first affluent socialist state.
A barrel-chested former paratrooper who has tapped Venezuela's oil revenues to court a loyal following among the country’s poor, Chavez has handily outpolled disorganized opponents in past elections and harnessed people power to defeat a 2001 coup d’etat and win a recall vote three years later.
But much of the revolutionary fire that stirred the masses into a political phenomenon known as Chavismo has gone out of the cancer-stricken president. For the first time since his 1998 election victory, he faces a viable competitor with a message of unity and a track record of efficient management as governor of the state that surrounds Caracas.
Few neutral observers are yet convinced that Chavez will fall to Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles in Sunday’s presidential election. They are as dubious of polls showing the 40-year-old challenger with a slight edge as they are of the Chavez-commissioned surveys depicting the incumbent at least 10 percentage points ahead.
Still, there is a solidifying impression among political analysts that Chavez's "missions" to eradicate illiteracy, improve healthcare, provide government jobs and build housing for the homeless have benefited too few for the vast sums squandered on the programs. A Reuters news agency report this week on its investigation into the opaque ledgers of a massive slush fund under Chavez's control identified more than $100 billion in off-budget spending over the last seven years.
While the social programs are popular and have made dents in poverty and illiteracy, Venezuelans are tiring of unfulfilled promises after 14 years, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. He believes that Chavez "has run his course."
Violent crime has skyrocketed -- including at least two fatal shootings of Capriles supporters at campaign events this week. Infrastructure is crumbling, as seen in deadly refinery explosions this summer. Power shortages afflict much of the country, and "there is a sense that Chavez's rhetoric has lost its magic," Shifter said.
A cult of personality enveloped Chavez through most of his presidency, with his visage ubiquitous on posters and billboards. Broadcast media have been obliged to carry every one of his 2,300 speeches. If aired end to end 24/7, they would run for 72 days, according to the calculations of two prominent Latin American statesmen in a report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The report, by career Chilean diplomat Genaro Arriagada and former Mexican Federal Electoral Institute chief Jose Woldenberg, also noted that Venezuela’s high-tech balloting machines that identify voters by fingerprint are suspected by a third of the population -– and a majority of Chavez supporters -- of creating a record of how they voted, despite official demonstrations to the contrary.
Voters in line for new housing or other government perqs fear they'll be bumped from the waiting lists if they are found to have voted for the opposition, said Charles Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and now president of the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla.
"What is true is not as important as what people think is true," Shapiro said of voters' enduring suspicions that their votes won't be secret.
Opinion polls in Venezuela are a poor gauge of voter intentions, said Shapiro, who wouldn't hazard a guess as to whether an end to the Chavez era might be on the horizon.
"What I do know is that Capriles has run a terrific campaign. Chavez has been president for 14 years, and in any country a certain weariness sets in," Shapiro said. "While Chavez is a very good campaigner, he clearly is not as vigorous as in past campaigns."
Chavez, 58, has had three cancer operations in Cuba in 15 months and often has been absent, uncharacteristically, from the public spotlight.
The 40-year-old Capriles, by contrast, has projected a dynamic image, plunging headlong into Chavista territory to assure the poor that as president he would maintain popular social programs but run them better.
"Capriles has been extremely smart in his campaign, in a way that would suggest there's not going to be a period of vengeance against Chavez supporters in the government," Shifter said. "The mistake the opposition has made in the past is saying that everything Chavez has done is bad."
It remains to be seen whether the young governor's message is strong enough to overcome the considerable powers of incumbency, with Chavez in control of the airwaves and the oil treasure chest, Shifter said. There are also concerns about whether a Capriles victory would be respected by Chavez loyalists on the electoral council, in the courts and among the armed forces.
"Capriles is the new generation," whether he wins this time or not, Shifter said. "People are obviously responding to his message and giving him a serious look."
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Photo: Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, at a campaign rally on Monday, has united the country's scattered opposition forces to confront President Hugo Chavez with the first serious challenge of his 14-year tenure in Miraflores Palace. Credit: Leo Ramirez / AFP/GettyImages
Insert: President Hugo Chavez, at a campaign rally in Yaracui state on Tuesday, still draws enthusiastic crowds but has been less in the public spotlight this election year because of long absences for cancer treatment in Cuba. Credit: Juan Barreto / AFP/GettyImages