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As Elections Approach in Venezuela, Political Opponents Share Fear of Violence

April 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Venezuelans will soon go to the polls to pick a replacement for the late former president, Hugo Chavez. Judy Woodruff reports on the ugly contest between the acting president, Nicolas Maduro, and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, and how the election results will shape Venezuela's future and impact the U.S.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn now to Venezuela.

On Sunday, voters in the Latin American nation will head to the polls to elect a new president. However, the legacy of the country’s former leader, who ruled for 14 years, still looms large.

Venezuela’s longtime leader, Hugo Chavez, has been dead more than a month, but he is hardly forgotten. Daily, visitors view his stone coffin at his final resting place, a mountaintop army barracks in Caracas.

LUZ MUJICA, Chavez Supporter: For us, he is not dead. He is here. We say that he rose, that his spirit is accompanying us like Bolivar’s, and that he’s going to be present in this struggle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This struggle is Sunday’s election, pitting acting president and Chavez’s chosen successor Nicolas Maduro against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was roundly defeated by Chavez just six months ago. To no one’s surprise, the contest quickly turned ugly.

ACTING PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO, Venezuela: Conceited, conceited, bourgeois, bourgeois. Capriles wants to be president of the republic.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI, Venezuelan Presidential Candidate: The worst thing that could happen is that Nicolas Maduro would win, that he would continue to sink Venezuela.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the U.S., the race could hold profound implications for relations with a major oil supplier and a country that Chavez transformed into a socialist ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Earlier this week, the reclusive Castro paid a musical tribute to Chavez, no doubt because Capriles has vowed to turn off the flow of subsidized oil to the communist country.

Maduro has served as head of state since December, when Chavez flew to Cuba for cancer treatment. The 50-year-old former bus driver routinely invokes Chavez’s name, here describing an unusual encounter with a bird during a visit to Chavez’s boyhood home.

NICOLAS MADURO: The bird looked at me strangely, whistled a little, circled me and left. I felt the spirit of Chavez. I felt as though he gave us a blessing, telling us, today, the battle starts, go to victory. We have our blessings. That’s how I felt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s more, Maduro has at his disposal the sweeping power that Chavez consolidated in the presidency during his 14 years in office.

That includes broad control of the media, with its frequent invocations of Chavez, including this cartoon showing the leader welcomed in heaven by various Latin American revolutionaries and his grandmother. Maduro also has access to the deep pockets of the state-run oil company.

Meanwhile, Capriles is the 40-year-old governor of Miranda, one of Venezuela’s most important states.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI: Nicolas isn’t Chavez. Capriles is the guarantee that the country will get ahead. I am not the opposition; I am the solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Capriles has nearly gone hoarse as he’s campaigned tirelessly, crisscrossing the country to meet with both urban and rural constituents. And despite the odds, he’s again generating considerable support.

MARIA ELENA FONSECA, Supporter of Capriles: Capriles has done everything. There is education, there is culture. There is a future for the freedom of Venezuela.

LUICA FONSECA, Supporter of Capriles: And because we don’t want more crime, more problems, more aggressiveness, and no more violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, late polls show Capriles trailing Maduro by as much as 10 points. Whoever wins will confront a raft of problems, including sky-high inflation and ongoing scarcity of basic goods.

MAN: We lack sugar, milk, chicken, bread, flour, and meat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s also the country’s crumbling infrastructure and high rate of drug-related violence.

ANA FERNANDEZ, Venezuela: I have been attacked with pistols seven times, and I’m here. I am alive by chance, thanks to God. One is forced to live locked up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As Election Day approaches, both candidates have expressed fears of campaign-related violence.

NICOLAS MADURO: We have captured several Colombian paramilitaries wearing Venezuelan uniforms that came to kill here in Venezuela. We are dismantling a right-wing plan for violence.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI: May we never take a step backward. We must always move forward. We must never feel hate. May Venezuela never in my lifetime have a confrontation between brothers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier this week, several students were injured after fighting broke out between government supporters and the opposition. The Venezuelan military, while seen as pro-Maduro, has vowed to enforce security once the election results are known.

We asked four Latin America analysts to weigh in on the future of Chavez’s political ideology, Chavismo. Find that on our World page.