Ferrari-Driving Pop Star Taps Venezuela’s Chavez Legacy
Reggaeton star El Potro enters the stage. Tonight, the singer who married two Miss Venezuelas won’t perform his number-one hit “Bla Bla Bla.” He stands beside President Nicolas Maduro and asks for votes to further the late Hugo Chavez’s revolution as the local mayor.
Antonio ‘El Potro’ Alvarez, 34, is one of three celebrities running in the December local elections as part of Venezuela’s United Socialist Party, or PSUV. Magglio Ordonez, a multi-millionaire six-time Major League Baseball All-Star, is campaigning in Puerto la Cruz, the nation’s fifth biggest city. Winston Vallenilla, host of primetime reality show ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ is seeking the top job in Caracas’ borough Baruta.
The Dec. 8 elections for 337 mayoral positions will be a plebiscite on Maduro’s first eight months in office amid the fastest inflation in the world and shortages of everything from water to toilet paper. The choice of celebrities is a “desperate attempt” by Chavez’s heirs to woo voters as their popularity plunges, said Hugo Perez Hernaiz, sociology professor at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.
“The revolution has called me,” El Potro, which is Spanish for the colt, said in an Oct. 9 interview, while meeting voters in the Caracas borough of Sucre, where he is trying to be elected. “Socialism is inclusion and what I achieved in sports, music and as a businessman gives me an opportunity to advance this inclusion.”
The video clip that put El Potro top of Billboard Tropical Songs in 2011 featured bikini-clad models, helicopters, a yacht and champagne. In it, he speeds down a runaway in a yellow Ferrari. His remix of the song “Bend Down” is currently number one on Venezuela’s radio charts. Reggaeton is a blend of Latin American rhythms with Jamaica’s reggae.
Maduro won the presidential election to succeed Chavez in April by the smallest margin in 45 years. Since the 50-year-old former bus driver came to power, annual inflation has doubled to 49.4 percent, central bank data shows. The bolivar has lost 49 percent of its value against the dollar on the black market, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks the value at the Colombian border.
Underinvestment in infrastructure means water and power cuts affect at least one Caracas borough each day. At the same time, consumers are forced to search the city for goods such as medicine, beef and powdered milk as a shortage of dollars crimp imports in a country that imports 70 percent of the goods it consumes.
“The economy isn’t doing well and voters will make this count in the coming elections,” said Ronald Balza, economics professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.
The yield on Venezuela’s benchmark 2027 bond rose 3.02 percentage points since Maduro’s election to reach 12.18 percent today as the new administration failed to implement policies to slow inflation, reduce the dollar shortage and boost investment. The country has the highest borrowing costs in the world, with investors demanding extra yield of 10.41 percentage points over Treasuries.
The government is trying to tap into the youth and pop culture to win ideologically uncommitted voters, said Nicmer Evans, a member of the government’s party and director of political consultancy Visor 360 Consultores.
“Trying to attract new voters at the expense of core voters is a very risky strategy,” Evans said by phone from Caracas last month. “Socialism and reggaeton are simply not complimentary.”
A PSUV spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions about their choice of celebrity candidates. Spokesmen for the Information Ministry and Maduro’s office declined to comment on election campaigning and the economic situation.
The negative perception of the situation in the country rose to 66.5 percent, up from 38 percent in December when Chavez asked voters to support Maduro should he be unable to finish his term, according to a Datanalisis poll that interviewed 1,300 people from Aug. 20 to 29. The poll has a margin of error of 2.7 percent.
Faced with waning support, the ruling PSUV abandoned the primaries system used in the last local elections. Maduro and his advisers picked the mayor candidates themselves, often bypassing the choices of local party activists.
Vallenilla, a 40-year-old former Mister Venezuela contender who posed in Calvin Klein underwear for a publicized photo shoot, is another candidate trying to reconcile luxury with Chavez’s revolution to reduce poverty and promote equality.
“I got a Hummer, I got a Mercedes, cars I bought through hard work a decade ago and which I own with pride,” he said in a Globovision television channel interview Oct. 14. “I don’t think being rich is bad.”
Vallenilla’s rally in Baruta on Oct. 16 lasted 10 minutes amid pot banging from opposition supporters in the surrounding apartment blocks. He drove away on a locally-made black KMV Kawasaki.
Chavez, who sold sweets after school to supplement his family’s income, said in 2009 “a rich man is not a human being, he’s an animal.” He died of cancer March 5 after 14 years in power.
Ordonez, the 39-year-old baseball player, earned an estimated $133 million in his 15 seasons at Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, according to baseball-reference.com. He moved to Puerto la Cruz on retiring in 2011 where he helps his family construction business. He is running against Marcos Figueroa, an opposition lawmaker who hosted the local radio talk show “People on air” until 2009.
Vallenilla and El Potro “came with humility and honesty to work for the fatherland’s interests,” Maduro said Oct. 15 at an event with the two celebrities.
With campaigning not scheduled to officially begin until Nov. 16 they have not held large rallies, appearing instead by Maduro’s side at televised events.
Since becoming a candidate, El Potro has traded Givenchy sunglasses, gold chain and leather jacket for the type of red shirt used by Chavez.
“El Potro doesn’t know much about politics,” Marisol Guevara, a 49-year-old street seller of cleaning goods, said at an event with the pop star in Sucre on Oct. 9. “I came to see a famous person live but I’m not convinced by him,” the single mother of four said.
El Potro is running against incumbent mayor Carlos Ocariz, a 42-year-old civil engineer. Vallenilla is competing against David Uzcategui, 38, a town hall councilor in Baruta since 2000.
The opposition is offering experience and professionalism instead of image, opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in an interview last month.
“The government is seriously underestimating Venezuelans’ capacity to judge politicians by actions rather than image,’ said Capriles, who lost the presidential election in April.
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