Can Henrique Capriles Defeat Venezuela's Socialist Establishment?

PHOTO: Hundreds of thousands attended a rally in support of Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles on Sunday in Caracas.
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His presidential campaign has been viewed by many as a long shot, or described as an impossible dream.

But on Sunday, as hundreds of thousands of people jammed the streets of Caracas to hear him speak, Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles assured his ecstatic supporters that he would win the country's upcoming election.

"I want to tell you with all firmness and seriousness, that we are winning this process," Capriles told a crowd of at least 200,000 people. "Twenty days ago people thought this was impossible because everything was stacked against us. But today each of you here gives us hope."

On April 14, Capriles will run against Nicolas Maduro, the interim President of Venezuela, who was endorsed by the deceased Hugo Chavez. Maduro has the sympathy of millions of people who feel that Chavez's socialist revolution improved their lives and made society more "inclusive." The government candidate also counts with a well tested get-out-the-vote operation, he gets virtually unlimited airtime on state-run media, and his campaign is backed by Venezuela's wealthy national oil company.

But many Venezuelans are also exhausted with the high crime rates, inflation and food shortages that have plagued this country. For them, Capriles represents the best way forward, and they see this special election, which follows Chavez's death, as a golden opportunity to change things.

"We want security and food. We want electricity shortages to stop, and we don't want any more delays in the metro. There are many thing which Capriles offers," said Melia Lourenco, an 18 year old psychology student who met up with her friends on Sunday at the Capriles rally.

But would it be a miracle if Capriles won?

"I don't think so," said Lourenco. "I think it's very possible but everyone has to contribute."

Most polls in Venezuela, however, suggest that a Capriles victory is indeed a long shot. In surveys conducted by several companies Maduro defeats Capriles by anywhere from 10 to 20 percentage points.

Oscar Schemel, the director of the polling agency Hinterlaces, says that the problem for Capriles and the Venezuelan opposition is that they have not been able to portray themselves as politicians who provide "social inclusion," and give people something to belong to, like Chavez did with his revolutionary project, and its many social programs, known here as "missions."

Schemel argues that going around the country pointing out the failings of the current administration and promising to fix things like food shortages and blackouts is not enough for Capriles to get the majority of votes.

But opposition supporters say that Capriles has also provided them with nonmaterial things such as a sense of hope in Venezuela's future. Many say that they are fed up of the aggressive rhetoric used by current government officials who constantly refer to non-socialists as "oligarchs" and "enemies of the people."

"When we talk with Venezuelans who back the government, they don't listen to us most of the time," said Felipe Sandoval, a Capriles supporter who attended Sunday's rally. "We want tolerance to reign in this country, and we think that with Capriles we can have a more united Venezuela."

Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Caracas' Andres Bello University, thinks that the elections could actually go either way.

He points out that the surveys, which give Maduro a big lead, were all conducted with data taken around March 20 when the interim president was still basking in sympathy over Chavez's death.

Carrasquero added that historically in Venezuela votes for the government decrease drastically in elections where Chavez is not on the ballot himself, while opposition votes have been slowly growing.

"This time around the fate of Chavez himself is not at stake," Carrasquero said, "That could deter many Chavistas [from participating] and give the opposition a greater chance of winning."

Maduro has worked to try and keep that from happening. He's campaigned heavily on promises that he will "further" Chavez's social project, he has portrayed himself as "the son" of Chavez, and talked about this election as a "battle" to keep Chavez's revolution alive. He even said that Chavez appeared to him in the form of a bird, and told him that he had his blessing.

But Carrasquero says that since Maduro took over he has had to devaluate the national currency by 40 percent and that inflation continues to rise. He says that people used to "forgive," the charismatic Chavez for problems like these, but there is no guarantee that they will not castigate the new Chavista candidate by voting against him, or by not voting at all.

Andrew Rosati contributed reporting for this story

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