Venezuela will hold elections, once again, on April 14th. It is the oil-rich nation's third election in six months, and this time the purpose is to replace Hugo Chávez, the deceased strongman who ran Venezuela for the past 14 years.
The winner of these elections will be taking over a country that saw a significant drop in poverty under Chávez, due to generous social programs funded with oil money. But he will also take over a country saddled with excessive debt, electricity shortages, high crime rates, rampant inflation and a tremendous dependence on oil revenues, as oil currently accounts for 90 percent of the country's exports.
The differences between the candidates are quite extreme, as you will see below. One candidate, Nicolas Maduro, is Chávez's hand-picked successor, while the other, Henrique Capriles, represents the opposition to the current government. And the election outcome will likely resonate beyond Venezuela's borders as it could determine whether Venezuela continues to back socialist governments throughout Latin America, or whether it withdraws its support, changes its aggressive tone towards the U.S. and makes it easier for private companies -- both foreign and domestic -- to do business in the country.
Polls suggest that Maduro is most likely to win, as he has led Capriles by 10 to 20 percentage points in most polls published during the first week of April. But opposition leaders argue that these polls are using data gathered at the end of March, when Maduro was still basking in sympathy for the death of Chavez. The opposition argues that their candidate is quickly catching up to Maduro as he stages packed rallies around the country.
Here's a rundown of the two main candidates:
Maduro, 50, is a former bus driver and trade unionist who rose quickly through the political ranks during Chávez's tenure. He was Chávez's foreign minister for six years, and became Venezuela's interim president after Chávez's death in March.
Most analysts argue that Maduro's main "strength" is his endorsement by the popular Chávez, who in his last ever nationally televised address asked people to back Maduro if he could not stay in power himself. As the interim president of Venezuela, Maduro also has at his disposal state slush funds, an extremely efficient get-out-the-vote operation and virtually unlimited airtime on state-owned media as he campaigns for the presidency.
As a loyal Chavista, Maduro has backed nationalization of private firms in sectors like food and telecom and has expressed his support for social programs that provide free housing, healthcare and education to poor Venezuelans. He also wants to go ahead with a plan to create socialist communes that would get direct funding from the federal government. State and local governments would be forced to divert some of their resources to the communes, which could take over functions like running social programs and educational initiatives. The communes would also run their own courts. Critics say that would undermine the authority of local governments, which are popularly elected, and serve as a way for the president to grab more power at the local level.
As foreign minister, Maduro helped to strengthen Venezuela's relations with Russia, which sells billions of dollars worth of military equipment to Venezuela, and with China, which is now one of the Venezuelan government's main financiers. Maduro is also said to be a close ally of Cuban leader Raul Castro. Cuba gets 100,000 barrels of oil from Venezuela every day, at highly discounted rates, and in exchange provides doctors and other specialists who work in healthcare programs in Venezuela.
Henrique Capriles arrives at a packed campaign rally in the city of Maracay (Fernando Llano/AP Photo)
Capriles, 40, is the governor of Miranda state. He ran unsuccessfully against Chávez in 2012, but he managed to give the opposition its best showing ever against the socialist leader, garnering 45 percent of the vote.
Capriles avoided confrontation with Chávez in the last election, as this strategy had not worked well for the opposition previously. But now he's gone on a full press attack against Maduro, accusing him of being an incompetent leader who is also a "puppet" of the Cuban government.
Capriles seeks to strengthen state and local governments, giving them more funding and autonomy. He would also do away with plans to implement socialist communes, arguing that these structures undermine governors who are elected by the people.
Capriles says he supports many of the social programs set in place by the Chávez administration, saying in a recent campaign speech that they have become part of the peoples' "rights." Opponents of Capriles, however, contend that Capriles is lying and would actually cut back on social spending as he implements "neoliberal" reforms.
In the international arena, Capriles has said he would cut oil aid to Cuba and would revise commercial and military agreements made with other countries on a case-by-case basis. He has criticized the Venezuelan government for making aggressive statements about the U.S. while it still sells the U.S. oil, and says that Maduro has a "hypocritical" foreign policy.