MARIARA, Venezuela — Backed by the lush verdant mountains of the Henri Pittier National Park, one small Venezuelan town played host on Sunday to the official opening of what could be Latin America's most important election race in years. A sea of red-clad supporters flooded into Mariara's Plaza Bolivar, to be parted by President Hugo Chavez, himself wearing the socialist color that has tinted his 13-year tenure.
That long period is set to be challenged on Oct. 7, when Venezuelans will decide between Chavez and opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Some see Capriles, a young state governor, as Venezuela’s answer to Brazil’s charismatic former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who turned his country into a de facto leader of the world’s emerging markets while bringing in social programs to help its poor.
Others, like Efrain Garcia, 60, holding up a placard of Chavez under a burning candle, fear that Capriles will bring a return to “imperialism and capitalism.”
“The Bolivarian hurricane has begun," bellowed Chavez, referring to the movement he coined after his idol, the Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Chavez spoke to mobs of supporters as his motorcade entered Maracay, around 10 miles from Mariara. On the long hot path, tens of thousands of Chavistas screamed, blew air horns and danced in the Venezuelan sun as their rock-star-like president blew kisses to his people.
“This is the biggest day for the revolution and Chavez … who has helped the poor of this country,” said Alexander Gomez, 32, sitting under the shade next to the statue of Bolivar.
About 800 miles away, on Venezuela’s border with Brazil at Santa Elena, Capriles opened his campaign, seeking to "reach the most forgotten people," he said. From there, the 39-year-old candidate hopped on a flight to the country's border with Colombia at La Guajira, flaunting his reach and also vitality, in contrast to the 57-year-old president who has endured months of cancer treatment.
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"There's nothing more damaging than one person in power because from that arises tyranny, abuse — what we're living today," Capriles said. "I'm here because I want to find solutions to Venezuela's problems."
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Last Sunday’s official campaign kick-off was more of a symbolic waypoint than any significant transition in operations. The real campaigning has effectively been running on for months — arguably years, for Chavez.
While the thousands of supporters for either candidate may look impressive, they overshadow the fact that about a third of voters are undecided, surveys say, and many of them have become disenchanted with politics entirely.
“Venezuelan society is not divided in two groups but in three," said Roberto Briceño-Leon, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. "Some people are for Chavez, some people are against Chavez and some people are neither-nor.”
That last segment is often referred to in Spanish as the “ni-nis” (pronounced “nee-nees”). Pollster Luis Vicente Leon, of Caracas-based firm Datanalisis, puts the ni-nis at around 30 percent. "They are going to decide any election if they vote," he said.
Chavez acknowledged the disillusioned voters on Sunday. In his speech at Maracay, he said: "There's a group of undecided voters. We will convince them. There are [also] those who are confused."
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Lately, confusion abounds in Venezuela. It spiked last year when Chavez announced that he was suffering from cancer — although he wouldn’t say what kind. That worried many, that the man who had styled himself as the immortal face of the “Bolivarian Revolution” may one day be unable to govern.
His cancer recurred in February, just after Capriles won a landslide victory in the primary elections.
However, Chavez has used his indefatigable style and immense political skill to play the illness to his advantage, both the highs and lows. On Sunday, he hinted at his own mortality but not that of the Bolivarian movement. "Chavez is the people. Millions of us are Chavez," he said, with a rhetorical flair that any politician would envy. "Whatever they do to me, whatever happens to me, a mere human, they cannot get rid of Chavez. Chavez is unbeatable, invincible."
The president and his media machine also have a flair for picking fights with Chavez’s opponent, with sometimes-shocking language. "We’re going to pulverize you,” Chavez said in February. “You’re a lowlife pig.”
After the February primary, the state-run media attacked Capriles’ Jewish roots in an online essay titled “The Enemy is Zionism.” A presenter on the state television read out what he claimed was a police report alleging that Capriles was caught performing oral sex on another man in 2000.
In response, Capriles rarely mentions Chavez by name. At a two-hour press conference last week, he referred to Chavez solely as “the other candidate."
Vicente Leon's latest polls show Chavez around 17 percentage points ahead of Capriles, a similar ballpark to other surveys. Capriles' campaign chief Armando Briquet says he is not fazed by the numbers. "The polls are the work of the government," he said. "Venezuelans want change."
Briquet went on to criticize the president for his long television appearances and short time spent with "el pueblo," the people. "We don't believe in government from TV or the palace. We know the effective way to build solutions is with the people."
Cover-all language like that may, in theory, play to the undecided, and could even scoop Capriles some more votes. But more blasts of passion and anger will likely come firing back from “the other candidate” over the next three months of campaigning.
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