A standoff in La Vega
With Venezuela’s presidential campaign officially under way, candidates have three months to convince the electorate. The President’s deteriorating health and the contrast between the two very different candidates suggest this will be an election to remember. La Vega, one of Caracas’ most iconic slums, was initially a slave quarters for a nearby sugar-cane farm centuries ...
With Venezuela's presidential campaign officially under way, candidates have three months to convince the electorate. The President's deteriorating health and the contrast between the two very different candidates suggest this will be an election to remember.
With Venezuela’s presidential campaign officially under way, candidates have three months to convince the electorate. The President’s deteriorating health and the contrast between the two very different candidates suggest this will be an election to remember.
La Vega, one of Caracas’ most iconic slums, was initially a slave quarters for a nearby sugar-cane farm centuries ago. Oil-fueled industrialization and the growth of government bureaucracy caused a massive migration from the countryside, and most of the new city-dwellers ended up in places like La Vega. Today, the hills house tens of thousands of inhabitants, most of whom live in makeshift homes. In 2006, Hugo Chávez won here with 65% of the vote, a few percentage points above his national average.
A few days ago, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles went to La Vega for a meet-and-greet, but he was blocked from entering the parish by a cadre of pro-government police officers. This led to a curious standoff, with Capriles, speaking through a loudspeaker, telling both his followers and the officers that he didn’t blame them, because he’s "going to be their boss in a few months."
The standoff is indicative of the obstacles the challenger faces in this unusual presidential campaign.
La Vega notwithstanding, Capriles is focusing on towns and small cities in the country’s interior. Meanwhile, the heretofore ubiquitous Chávez now makes rare media appearances, and has seldom ventured outside the main cities.
Much of the explanation for Chávez’s laconic campaign lies, apparently, with the president’s health issues. Although he recently declared, once again, to be "free of cancer," few believe him. He has rarely pressed the flesh, but in his few recent public appearances, he appeared physically bloated, distanced from the people, and closely guarded — yet energetic.
The different approaches by each candidate were evident on July 1st, the first official day of the campaign. That day, Chávez held a massive rally in Mariara, a suburb of the central city of Maracay (pop. 1 million), in which he gave a long speech from a stage high above the crowds. Summoning his fiery rhetoric, and with thousands of supporters decked in red, the event was vintage Chávez.
Capriles instead began the day with a gathering in Santa Elena de Uairén, a small town in southeastern Venezuela that borders Brazil. He ended that same day in El Moján, a small city in the northwest that borders Colombia, on the opposite side of the country. It was an obvious attempt to draw a contrast: The agile lightweight against the bulked-up heavyweight, one candidate sticking close to home, the other going corner to corner.
Opinion polls have shown Chávez having a double-digit lead. But two recent opinion polls, from pollsters Consultores 21 and Varianzas, put the contest in a dead heat.
The Capriles camp is optimistic. They insist their candidate has more room to grow than the incumbent, and that his youthful message of change is percolating. Chavistas, however, are emboldened by the president’s improved physical appearance and his more frequent public appearances.
The government also has two clear advantages: money, and media.
Venezuela’s Electoral Board has placed strict time limits on the number of ads each candidate can air. They have not, however, been able or willing to limit the many hours the government, and Chávez himself, force all TV and radio to broadcast his speeches, many of them clearly electoral in nature.
More importantly, the government’s organizational and financial advantages are evident. Although details on campaign finances are nonexistent, anecdotal evidence suggests the government is heavily outspending the opposition, and using every instance it can to promote Chávez. Recently, billboards for the Chávez campaign even hung from a vacated federal prison in central Caracas.
The standoff in La Vega showed that youth, strategy, and pluck can only get you so far. If Capriles intends to loosen Chavez’s grip on power, he’s going to have to find a way to jump over the barricades, both literal and figurative.
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