The battle for Venezuela’s presidency is focused on undecided voters like Beatriz Damas, a 42-year-old porter at a Caracas apartment building.
Damas, a mother of four who twice voted for President Hugo Chavez, says she is angry about worsening crime and the high cost of living, yet skeptical that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski will care about the poor if he wins the Oct. 7 election.
“The country is slipping out of the president’s hands,” Damas said of Chavez during a Sept. 27 interview in central Caracas. As for Capriles, she said the 40-year-old former governor of Miranda state “doesn’t know what it is to be poor. He’s never wanted for anything.”
Capriles, whose family founded the local unit of Nabisco Inc. and owns the country’s biggest movie theater chain, is looking to unseat Chavez after 13 years in office by wooing Venezuelans fed up with power cuts, crumbling infrastructure and 18 percent inflation. Capriles has visited more than 260 communities over eight months promising not to eradicate social programs popular with the poor. It’s a hard sell, said David Smilde, a sociologist at the University of Georgia who lived in Venezuela for 10 years and wrote a book about Chavez’s rule.
“He doesn’t look, act or have the background of an average Venezuelan like Chavez does,” Smilde, who also works for the Washington Office on Latin America, said in a phone interview from Athens, Georgia. “People may think he’s a well-intentioned young guy with lots of good ideas, but to really have the trust that he’ll be there for you is difficult for the average Venezuelan.”
Chavez has sought to exploit Capriles’ upbringing, regularly referring to the Caracas-born lawyer as a member of Venezuela’s “bourgeoisie.” He’s also stoked concern Capriles will implement austerity measures similar to those introduced by former President Carlos Andres Perez that sparked riots in Caracas in 1989 over transport costs and gasoline-price increases that left hundreds dead.
“He’s a little rich boy dressed up as a poor kid from the barrio,” Chavez said Sept. 10 in comments broadcast on state television. “For an upper class bourgeois to disguise what he is just doesn’t sit well with anybody. He’s got a group of advisers trying to transform him.”
Chavez won presidential elections in 1998, 2000 and 2006 with a margin of at least 16 percentage points. While Capriles has said the country’s electronic voting system is fair, he’s criticized Chavez’s use of government institutions and state funds backed by oil revenue in the campaign, comparing his task to the Biblical fight of David against Goliath.
Chavez has been undermined by rising violent crime. The homicide rate tripled last year to 67 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in South America according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory. The government says the rate is about 50 per 100,000.
Some polls show Capriles gaining ground on the 58-year-old Chavez, even among the poor that have until now tended to side with the incumbent because of programs that include subsidized supermarkets and health clinics.
In a Sept. 7-18 survey of 1,500 people by Caracas-based Consultores 21, the two candidates were in a statistical tie, with Capriles supported by 46.5 percent and Chavez by 45.7 percent. The poll, which had a margin of error of 2.58 percentage points, showed that while Capriles leads Chavez in votes among the upper and middle class, he trails him by about 6 percentage points among the poor.
Chavez had 49.4 percent support among likely voters against 39 percent for Capriles in a Datanalisis poll of 1,600 people taken between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5. The survey had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points. The company’s July poll showed Chavez with a 15-point lead.
Capriles said 70 percent of Miranda state, where he served as governor from 2008 until June, is poor and he wouldn’t have been elected governor if he couldn’t connect with such voters. He said his grandparents, who escaped from Nazi persecution in Poland during the Second World War, made their money by working hard after arriving in Venezuela “with just a suitcase full of clothes.”
“What am I in government for - to defend the rich?” he said in a Sept. 22 interview in Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city. “The rich don’t need me to defend them. We need to get the rich to pay their taxes, generate employment, invest in the country and not take away the profits.”
Investors have boosted demand for Venezuelan debt on speculation that Chavez’s health may force him from office even if he beats Capriles, said Marcela Meirelles, an emerging-market strategist with TCW Group Inc. in Los Angeles. The country’s dollar bonds have returned 30 percent this year through September, the second-highest in emerging markets after the Ivory Coast, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBIG index.
The yield on Venezuela’s benchmark 9.25 percent bonds due in 2027 rose 9 basis points, or 0.09 percentage point, to 10.41 percent at 10:44 a.m. Caracas time, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The bond’s price fell 0.61 cents to 91.29 cents on the dollar.
During a five-hour caravan to rally support through Valencia, Capriles drew crowds and screams in poor neighborhoods while waving from the back of a pick-up truck and tossing baseball caps bearing the colors of the Venezuelan flag to supporters. The crowds grew denser as the caravan approached more affluent areas, with as many as 10 rows of people lining the road on either side to wave him on.
Capriles campaigned that day in a pastel blue shirt made by a woman who received a small loan from Miranda state to set up her business. He retreated into his campaign bus at the end of the day to change into a new shirt from the same workshop when it became soaked with sweat.
Capriles said that while he’ll make moves to unwind some of Chavez’s economic policies such as currency and price controls and nationalizations, the measures will be gradual to avoid affecting ordinary Venezuelans.
“The process of stabilizing the economy and the decisions we’ll have to take, which will be gradual, won’t have any impact on the poor,” he said.
Chavez, who says he was born poor and sold homemade candies to help his parents in the cattle-raising state of Barinas, boosted public spending by an inflation-adjusted 30 percent this year as he seeks another six-year term, according to estimates by Bank of America-Merrill Lynch. The government has handed out more than 250,000 homes to the poor in the past two years. Chavez also started giving mothers living in extreme poverty a monthly payment of as much as 600 bolivars ($139.71), a program the government said will benefit one million children.
The spending boom fueled economic growth of 5.4 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier. While inflation slowed for nine straight months to 18.1 percent in August, it’s still the highest annual rate of 102 economies tracked by Bloomberg after Belarus, Iran and Argentina, where economists say prices are rising at more than double the government’s estimate of 10 percent.
Like Capriles, Chavez was an outsider when he started in politics. In 1998, he broke the 51-year hold that the two ruling parties had on the country. Venezuelans still associate the 1990s, and the parties that ran the government, with corruption, a view that Chavez exploited to gain power, said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz.
Capriles has to convince voters that he can channel the same frustration for reform that Chavez first tapped into without being contaminated by the reputation the political parties backing him had, Ellner said. That’s the dilemma Ivonne Torrealba, a 36-year-old hairdresser, is weighing.
In 2002, Torrealba left her barrio by the side of the Panamerican Highway in Coche to clamor for Chavez’s return when his opponents briefly unseated him in a coup. Her mother even visited Chavez in prison when he was held after staging his own failed coup in 1992.
She’s now thinking of voting for Capriles, citing his pledges to invest in education and tackle crime. Yet loyalty to what Chavez represents and concern about the alliances Capriles has made with opposition parties give her pause for thought before election day.
“That’s my doubt -- that we’ll return to the Venezuela before Chavez.”