It is Tuesday, April 2nd; music and people fill the streets of Caracas. This is the official opening day of the campaign for Presidential elections in Venezuela, due to take place on April 14th after the death of Hugo Chavez, a popular leader who had won a total of fifteen elections during his fourteen years of rule. Nicolas Maduro, former bus driver, ex-Vice-President and the man Chavez personally named as his successor, kicks off his tour of the country in Barinas, the state where Chavez was born and the heart of the Venezuelan countryside. Henrique Capriles, the main opposition candidate who lost to Chavez last November, had originally announced that he would start in the same place, but changed his plans after his local team warned of the tensions such a clash of dates could cause. But, as journalist Reinaldo Iturriza once told me, these are not “normal elections” that take place here in Venezuela. From the beginning, the political campaigns are vibrant, colorful and visible everywhere you turn.
Carmen Hidalgo, aged 23, was born in Barinas, but currently lives and studies in the Andean city of Merida. She has worked for Mision Ribas, an educational program set-up by the government in 2003 to provide classes and qualifications for people who had never completed high school. Carmen describes her home-town as “tender and sweet Barinas, full of friendly and very hard-working people. Where the struggle every-day is to grow, and not only economically but also intelligently, always united together.” Huge crowds turned out to greet Maduro in Barinas on Tuesday, a sign that opposition claims that the Bolivarian project will cease to exist without Chavez may not be as accurate as they wish to portray. Nevertheless, Chavez’ images does continue to dominate the government’s re-election bid; indeed, their campaign is named after him!
A couple of weeks before we spoke, Capriles had visited and spoke in Merida. In reality, neither candidate waited for the date of April 2nd to begin rallying their troops. In Carmen’s view, Capriles’ speech was “Chavez, but without the socialism.”
“Capriles understands that the majority of people like socialism; that is why we speak of a system of “inclusion.” We remember that in the governments of the Fourth Republic [i.e. before the first election of Chavez in 1998] the country was full of exclusion and few had the opportunity to live well, due to the robbing of the country’smoney and resources. First [Capriles’ election campaign] has chosen to use the name Simon Bolivar.” This suggests that they approve of “Bolivarianism,” whilst in the coup of April 2002, in which Capriles participated in the attack on the Cuban embassy, the first thing they did was to remove the word “Bolivarian” from the name of the country. Secondly, they are using a t-shirt withCapriles eyes and signature, exactly the same as the Chavez t-shirt we designed during the last election campaign. A political leader should be more serious and not copy the designs of the sovereign people.”
Many people believe that the opposition know that they will not win the upcoming elections. Indeed, every single poll in the last two weeks, including those conducted by firms traditionally considered as opposition supporters, have given Maduro a lead of between ten and twenty-three points. Accusations of external forces attempting to use the elections as an opportunity to destabilize the country flared up once again when US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson recently stated that although they were not favouring either candidate, “Capriles would make a good President”. Venezuela Foreign Minister Elias Jaua responded by breaking off communication with the US, adding, “Mrs. Jacobson, when you learn that we are a sovereign country, then give us a call.”
Carmen says that everyone knows that Capriles is “totally immersed” with the US government, and claims the opposition candidate recently travelled to the country to “plan a campaign of destabilization”.
Nevertheless, it is largely a spirit of positivity that has been prevalent in Caracas in recent days. On April 14th, millions of Venezuelans will go out to vote for their next President, possibly in larger numbers than ever before. The central hope is that the results of the elections will be adhered to and respected.