CARACAS, Venezuela — Weakened from battling cancer and visibly bloated, President Hugo Chavez is fighting for his political life as he faces a presidential election today against a charismatic challenger who has energized a once disunited opposition in a way none of the populist leader’s foes ever has.
At stake is the president’s experiment to remake Venezuela, a 14-year transformation characterized by the expropriation of private companies, diplomatic initiatives to counter U.S. influence and a near-mystical bond with the country’s poor masses.
Two established pollsters show Chavez, 58, with a substantial advantage, underscoring the loyalty of millions he has commanded since sweeping into power in 1998. But two others have Chavez and the challenger, Henrique Capriles, 40, a lawyer and former governor who has never lost an election, in a virtual dead heat.
“This is seriously competitive,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Americas program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
“I would say it’s the first time since Chavez was elected that the accumulated learning experience of the opposition and the accumulated problems of the country have brought the race to a place where it’s almost too close to call.”
The election is almost certainly being watched closely by Iran, which has found an ally in Venezuela, and myriad small countries in Latin America that have received aid in return for support against Washington.
The outcome is also expected to be tracked by energy markets. Venezuela recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the country with the biggest certified oil reserves, and Chavez is considered a price hawk within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, an organization Venezuela helped found.
Capriles campaign officials said they believe that the large number of undecided voters in some polls will break for the challenger at the ballot box, leading to Chavez’s defeat. It is a bold prediction that is buttressed by the opposition’s recent revival after years of uninspired campaigning and the disenchantment many Venezuelans express to pollsters about decaying infrastructure, rampant violent crime and shoddy services.
But the president’s advantage is undeniable. A state media apparatus has provided fawning coverage of the campaign, and his administration has provided prospective voters with gifts ranging from refrigerators to new apartments.
“He has given love and made it easy for the people, the only president we have had who has had anything to do with the poor,” said Soleña Arcila, a nurse who came out Thursday for Chavez’s last pre-election speech. “Chavez will be here forever.”
Still, there are signs that things are not as rosy for the president as they have been in the past. Political analysts say Chavez’s campaign has been lackluster, and nagging questions remain about his health, which is still a state secret.
That has many Venezuelans wondering whether the dashing former army paratrooper who stormed to prominence a generation ago as the leader of a failed coup has mustered the emotional appeal needed to get millions of voters to once more cast ballots for him.
Although the president still gives a resounding speech, the Chavez of this campaign has resorted to issuing the kind of pleas expected from a candidate coming from behind.
“This government will be much better than all the governments of Chavez,” the president, who often speaks about himself in the third person, said in a recent speech. “I promise I will be a much better president than I have been. I will put all I have into this to have more accomplishments.”
The Venezuela the two men are battling for is a country awash in historic oil earnings but one that has the feel of having missed out on the democratic awakening and economic boom that is modernizing much of Latin America.
Bridges and highways are decrepit, patients are forced to bring their own medicine to public hospitals, vast state projects are unfinished, rolling blackouts affect much of the country and prison riots kill hundreds each year.
Polls show that voters are most concerned about a sharp rise in homicides, with 19,336 people killed last year, up from 4,550 in 1998 when Chavez was first elected president, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a group that tracks crime.
“How could they fail to read what the people were thinking after 14 years?” Capriles asked in a recent speech. “The people are tired of that.”
Carlos Romero, a political scientist here, said Chavez’s rhetorical flourishes against the United States and his warnings about the bourgeoisie may still electrify radicals, but they fall short for ordinary people whipsawed by problems.
“Most of the people in Venezuela are tired of Chavez’s political speeches, the speeches that are very radical, that try to divide Venezuelans and don’t take into account the most important problems that Venezuelans are facing every day,” Romero said.
Standing at the doorway of her home in the Petare hillside slum as the sun went down on a recent day, Maria Uribe, a public school teacher, said she has seen few improvements in the classrooms and that she worries about her son, Luis Martinez, 9, because of the violence in their neighborhood.
“The truth is that the country needs a change,” she said. “This country is completely deteriorated, forgotten, in need of maintenance and of leaders who will truly concern themselves with the country.”
As she spoke, others emerged from cinder-block homes to say that they, too, felt new leadership was needed.
Joel Hernandez, 26, recounted how gunmen stole his motorcycle on a recent afternoon. Barbara Rodriguez, 32, who benefits from a government job providing maintenance in a community center, said the economy provides her with no other job possibilities.
“The candidate Chavez has 14 years at this and hasn’t been able to handle it,” said Eder Granados, 44, who owns a small Internet cafe, ticking off problems in the country. “It’s time to give someone else the chance to see what they can do.”
Many here say the president’s campaign manifesto, which is partly focused on countering “savage capitalism” and guaranteeing “planetary peace,” is out of touch with people who have to contend with one of the world’s highest inflation rates.
‘The candidate of happiness’
Chavez has heaped endless insults on Capriles, calling him a chameleon who would usher in a right-wing government, controlled by Washington and intent on ending popular social programs. Capriles styles himself as a center-left candidate, much like Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and says he will make state-sponsored aid more efficient.
“Who’s the candidate of the Yankees, of the bourgeoisie, of big business, of the super rich?” Chavez asked throngs of supporters in speech after speech, with his followers shouting back a favorite putdown for Capriles.
“Who’s the candidate of happiness? Of the future, of the young people, of the fatherland?” he then asked, with the crowd shouting back his name. “That is why Chavez wins on Oct. 7.”
For many, of course, that message still resonates.
Loyalists such as Ismar Mota, 54, who works in a state agency and actively campaigns for Chavez, said he wants to extend Chavez’s political life.
“There’s more to be done to consolidate socialism,” Mota said. “And though it has been 14 years, the president has the will and the desire to make Venezuela a great country, a power, a dignified country.”