Venezuelans are in their second day of reflection before before going to the polls on Sunday to decide whether to give socialist incumbent Hugo Chavez another six years as president or to sharply change course with challenger Henrique Capriles.
After 14 years in power and 1 1/2 years undergoing operations and treatments for cancer, Chavez has no intention of relinquishing power until 2020, in order to solidify his particular brand of socialism in the country.
Idolized by some as a defender of democracy with a social conscience and accused by others of being one more populist dictator only concerned about himself, Chavez faces his third presidential reelection with his popularity at over 50 percent and with most surveys seeming to favor his chances.
Since 1998, all that has happened in this South American nation has had some prepositional tie with Chavez. All is done by, against, without, with, for, according to, under or before the president-commander of Venezuela. Whether for or against him, no Venezuelan can talk about the country’s daily life without mentioning him.
Under his rule, Venezuela has gone on a nationalization spree, exerting state control over a vast swath of the economy, including the oil, cement, food, telecommunications, steel and power sectors, as part of a drive to usher in “socialism of the 21st century.”
Chavez, survivor of a 2002 coup attempt that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter says took place with Washington’s advance knowledge if not active collusion, has also slammed U.S. foreign policy while forging alliances with communist Cuba and Iran and bolstering Venezuela’s ties with Russia and China.
Extrovert, shameless, charismatic, Chavez has made the exercise of power a TV show in which he stars as the defender of the poor, scourge of the rich, a continuation of the Liberator Simon Bolivar and an enemy of the “Empire,” as he calls the United States, still a major market for Venezuelan oil.
But his vision and political dominance are under threat by attorney Henrique Capriles, a politician who in his 40 years has been president of the now-defunct Chamber of Deputies, mayor and governor.
A descendent of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto and great-grandson of victims of the Treblinka extermination camp, Capriles declares himself a practicing Catholic and with his campaign platform attempts to distance himself from both radicals of the opposition and of the ruling party.
Conciliatory and moderate, Capriles won an easy victory over his rivals in the primary elections and for three months has gone from town to town throughout Venezuela to convince his compatriots that his vision for the country is one of reconciliation and national development.
He has no problem in acknowledging the need to keep Chavez’s social programs in place, while stressing the importance of getting down to business - saying that he, unlike the Venezuelan president, will not be talking for hours on television.
“Giving a truly historic change to our country is my duty and is in my hands,” Capriles said recently in an interview with Efe.
Though his family names are associated with corporate power, Capriles has managed to shed the elitist image to attract even most destitute.
Despite his youth, he has an impressive resume. He has been governor of Miranda, a state that includes part of Caracas and one of the most important in the country, after winning an election against Diosdado Cabello, one of Chavez’s leading supporters and current president of the National Assembly.
Around 18.9 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote in Sunday’s elections to choose the president for the 2013-2019 term, with 100,495 of them in other countries, notably in the United States and Spain.
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