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Hugo Chavez Faces Serious Challenger in Venezuelan Presidential Elections

October 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
For 14 years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez maintained power battling military coups, presidential term limit amendments, even cancer. But for the upcoming elections, a typically fractured opposition is united behind challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski, threatening Chavez's stronghold. Ray Suarez reports.
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RAY SUAREZ: It’s being billed as a battle between David and Goliath. Known as 7-0 for the 7th of October, when Venezuelans head to the polls, the election marks a watershed moment for the world’s second-largest oil-producing nation and a critical supplier of crude oil to the U.S., its number one customer.

Towering above the race is incumbent President Hugo Chavez.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ, Venezuela (through translator): We will raze the competition on Sunday the 7th. No one should have the smallest doubt.

RAY SUAREZ: And with him, legions of red-shirted supporters known as Chavistas from the United Socialist Party.

RAMON PINO, agriculture union leader (through translator): Starting on October 8, we social organizations are going to join the president to make radical changes to this country, so we can impose the revolution, and finally have a socialist system firmly set in Venezuela.

RAY SUAREZ: Through three U.S. administrations, the 58-year-old Chavez has shown remarkable staying power, surviving a coup that briefly deposed him, a constitution that term-limited him out of office, And for more than a year, his battle with cancer, all while openly antagonizing the United States, as he’s cozied up to the world’s most isolated regimes.

Some will recall his theatrics in 2006 at the United Nations General Assembly, when he had choice words to describe then-President George W. Bush.

HUGO CHAVEZ (through translator): This podium where it is now my turn to speak still smells of sulfur. Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, at this same rostrum, Mr. President of the United States was here, the one I call the devil.

RAY SUAREZ: With President Obama, he’s has been less hostile, but no less theatrical, this week confidently saying the two would vote for each other in their respective contests.

HUGO CHAVEZ (through translator): If I were American, I would vote for Obama. And I think, if Obama was from here, from Barlovento or from some neighborhood in Caracas, he would vote for Chavez. I am sure of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet he’s continued to thwart American efforts on a range of international issues, such as Washington’s attempt to convince Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to halt his country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

And he’s stymied efforts to remove Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, by being ally to the regime at the United Nations and providing vital fuel to power Assad’s crackdown. Indeed, as an aging Fidel Castro of Cuba fades from visibility, Chavez has supplanted him as the United States’ nearest foe.

And on the other side, running against Chavez is David. For the first time, the typically fractured opposition has united around a challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, a telegenic former governor of 18 years Chavez’s junior.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI, Venezuelan presidential candidate (through translator): I say to the people of Venezuela, you judge who is in the process of change and who has become sick from power, because he who is now in the presidential palace has defrauded the Venezuelan people.

RAY SUAREZ: Often clad in a baseball cap bearing Venezuela’s national colors, the Red Bull-drinking 40-year-old markets himself as a modern leftist, someone who can balance free market incentives with the country’s social welfare programs, like Brazil. And he’s struck a chord. In February’s primary, he took 64 percent of the more than three million votes cast among five candidates.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI (through translator): I will get into the ring, but with the objective of giving a knockout to this country’s corruption, violence, unemployment, hospitals that don’t work, and to the collapsing national education system and national infrastructure.

RAY SUAREZ: He argues that instead of bettering the fortunes of Venezuela’s 29 million citizens, Chavez has institutionalized the corruption he himself once campaigned against, while providing empty revolutionary rhetoric that’s polarized the country and scared off foreign investors.

HILARIO BELTRAN, unemployed Venezuelan (through translator): In 14 years, the president has been playing the same chess moves. Nothing has changed at all. All the streets are damaged, socialism of the 21st century.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, in Caracas, the country’s capital, price controls have led to shortages of many goods and of housing, as the government’s tried to rein in an inflation rate among the highest in the world.

Despite a drastic reduction of those living in extreme poverty, and a robust welfare state financed by the oil revenue, 27 percent of the population still lives in poverty. Power outages, as during this 2010 press conference, are frequent.

And violent crime has soared over the past decade, as drug-related homicides and kidnappings grow.

RUTH ROJAS, housewife (through translator): Crime is horrible. Here, they kill for fun. You go out with your phone and they take it away from you. They grab you and take everything you have. There are no laws. The laws here are garbage.

RAY SUAREZ: These challenges notwithstanding, President Chavez enjoys all the advantages of his 14 years in office, including control of the media, fear of reprisals among voters, and a hand in the deep pockets of the state-run oil company, PDVSA, from which he draws both welfare payments for the poor and funds for his campaign.

MONICA GODOY,Venezuela (through translator): Before, there was nothing. My grandma was too old and she had never received a pension. Then this government came, and thanks to it, God and the president, she has her pension.

RAY SUAREZ: For much of the year, polls have shown Chavez with a double-digit lead over Capriles. But as Election Day approaches, the race has narrowed.

DIANA NEGROPONTE, Brookings Institution: The election is tightening, but what remains constant is the number of people who are undecided.

RAY SUAREZ: Diana Negroponte is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She says, following the 2004 regional elections in Venezuela, some who voted against Chavez lost both jobs and government benefits.

DIANA NEGROPONTE: So, although the new election machine will make it impossible to link your fingerprint to your vote — there’s a disconnect between the two — memory of 2004 leaves people wondering, will I lose, might I lose my benefits?

RAY SUAREZ: Capriles has tried to counteract that fear with a strong shoe-leather campaign, traveling town to town across the country to introduce himself, and to circumvent Chavez’s media advantage.

Following his February primary victory, state media attempted to play into fears among the largely Catholic nation, insinuating Capriles was a Zionist agent, a fascist and a homosexual.

Capriles is the grandson of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, and describes himself as a devout Catholic. With the stakes so high, many wonder whether Chavez will actually relinquish power should he lose. He has said his supporters wouldn’t accept a defeat.

That may explain the deadly violence that erupted on the campaign trail Saturday. While en route to a rally in the western state of Barinas, two Capriles supporters were fatally shot and one seriously wounded after a confrontation with Chavez supporters blocking the road.

It was the first campaign violence to claim lives, but throughout the year, there have been other clashes. If Chavez should prove victorious on Sunday, and many think he will, his future and that of his country remains uncertain.

DIANA NEGROPONTE: If the president should become disabled within his first four years of office, another presidential election will be held. I know nobody who believes that Chavez will survive four more years.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet to be seen is whether the opposition, in the face of defeat, can remain united and motivated. And, with a win, how long an ailing, weakened, but still powerful Chavez hold on?

JEFFREY BROWN: We asked a group of Venezuela experts if Hugo Chavez has what it takes to win again. You can find their answers on our World page.