The vicious smear campaign against Capriles indicates just how much his primary victory has rattled the government, which has been in power since 1999. While the cancer-stricken Chávez, 57, remains personally popular among many Venezuelans, and while oil revenue will allow him to boost social spending in advance of the October election, he also realizes that voters are tired of high inflation, rampant crime, food shortages, and electricity rationing. Caracas is now a global murder capital; Cuban Communists are now running key government institutions; and the state-owned oil company PDVSA has been horribly mismanaged. On February 4, there was a bad oil spill in northeast Venezuela. According to The Economist, “Anywhere from 40,000-120,000 barrels poured into a river that supplies drinking and irrigation water. Some 550,000 people now lack water at home.” (Venezuela’s total population is roughly 29 million.)
Such problems have contributed to growing public unrest. And now, at long last, the Venezuelan opposition finally has a charismatic leader who can unite its many factions and make inroads among the poor. Regardless of what Chávez and his cronies may say, Capriles is hardly a “right-winger.” He is, in fact, a center-left social democrat who wants to follow the economic model popularized by former Brazilian president Lula da Silva. And he has unquestionably produced real public enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Consider this February 12 New York Times report:
At a recent rally in Maracay, a city west of Caracas, Mr. Capriles stepped out of a van and was immediately thronged by followers. Within minutes, his face was smudged with lipstick and the pockets of his bright green shirt were stuffed with notes, many of them from people asking for help in getting better housing, a chronic problem in Venezuela. He was swept up by the crowd and propelled along the city’s main commercial street for block after block, as some men pressed close to raise his hand overhead in a gesture of triumph while other people squeezed in to snap cellphone pictures. Not even the firecrackers thrown at the crowd by menacing Chávez supporters on motorcycles could dampen the spirit.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Chávez’s failed 1992 coup attempt. If he cancels the 2012 election, steals it, or refuses to accept defeat, he will have extinguished the final embers of Venezuelan democracy. Indeed, this may be the last opportunity to prevent the imposition of a full-blown petro-dictatorship. Over the next eight months, the United States and its democratic partners across Latin America should demand that Henrique Capriles be given a fair chance to campaign free of government harassment. He is the man who could save Venezuela.
Read this article in Spanish here.