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Hugo Chavez's allies release a video showing his opponent's key aide pocketing cash for a political favor.
CARACAS, Venezuela — The quality of the video is terrible, even by hidden camera standards. The voices are barely audible and at least one face is completely obscured.
What can be seen, however, in a video lawmakers here released Thursday, is a wad of cash changing hands to a then-top aide to Venezuela’s opposition candidate — the best hope they have had yet to topple President Hugo Chavez.
The message is crystal clear, at least in the government’s eyes: If Henrique Capriles Radonski wins the election, Venezuela will return to the elite corruption that ran the country for the second half of the 20th century — the country’s so-called Fourth Republic period during which two right-wing parties swapped power between themselves for four decades, until Chavez took over in 1999.
“They’ll try to make up reasons and excuses,” Gloria Torres, an avid Chavez supporter living in the Caracas slum of Petare, said of the Capriles camp. “But in truth this is an ugly blow. They will not survive it.”
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Corruption is a charge Capriles has long tried to parry. He has done well, critics say, to hide his wealthy background, but the issue has simmered just below the surface. When pro-government lawmakers release the video it catapulted that wealth — and the corruption often associated with Venezuelan riches — into a spotlight shone by Chavez’s state machinery.
Capriles cut all ties with Juan Carlos Caldera — the unwitting star of the video who had been Capriles’ point man with electoral authorities — hours after it was made public.
“Caldera is out of this project,” Capriles exclaimed, speaking on opposition television network Globovision. “He has no right to use my name for personal gain.”
In the black and white video, the opposition lawmaker is seen receiving an envelope from a mystery figure who then asks for a meeting with Capriles. The lawmaker holds the stack of cash before placing it into an envelope.
Caldera met with the press and admitted the video had not been fabricated, though he said the money was for his own campaigning. In a candid speech, he said the scene took place in the house of Venezuelan oil and shipping magnate Wilmer Ruperti, known to be friendly with Chavez.
Caldera said he was given the equivalent of just over $4,500 on two occasions by a representative of Ruperti, which he would use in his campaign to become mayor of Sucre, a Caracas suburb, next year.
“This has nothing to do with Capriles,” Caldera said, offering his own distance to the opposition presidential campaign. “I haven’t spoken with Capriles. He is doing what he has to do. … What’s most important is that he wins.”
It was a classic trap “set for [Caldera] by the pro-Chavez Ruperti,” said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela. “His big mistake was accepting the cash.”
The government jumped on the news. “The corruption is assumed normal as during the Fourth Republic,” Vice President Elias Jaua wrote on Twitter, adding the hashtag #MajuncheCorrupto, roughly translating as #CorruptLoser. “More of the same,” he added.
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“That’s the way the Venezuelan right wing works,” said Diosdado Cabello, head of the National Assembly, on state television. “It’s irrefutable. Face, hand, money … corruption.”
The government itself, however, is no stranger to rampant corruption charges, especially as it sits upon the world’s largest oil reserves. Remi Lehmann, author of “Chavez, the Venezuelan Petro State and Foreign Policy” described the current regime as the “most corrupt Venezuelan government ever.”
In perhaps the most famous incident, a suitcase containing $800,000 was transported to Argentina in the hands of a businessman connected to the state oil company, purportedly as a donation to then presidential candidate Cristina Fernandez, who is now Argentina’s president.
“Chavez is the teflon man. Nothing sticks,” says Carlos Rivero, a 41-year-old civil engineer and Capriles supporter based in Caracas. “However, he is quick to judge and sentence the other side. ”
Venezuelans have become used to corruption charges, and many say they are fed up.
“Venezuelans no longer believe in their politicians,” said pollster Luis Vicente Leon. “But this video is so dangerous because of its visual impact. Obviously the government will exploit the video, link it to Capriles and to the country’s political past.”
Vicente Leon is the head of Venezuela’s most respected polling firm Datanalisis. Though polls in the country vary, and many have little weight, Datanilisis put Chavez 12 points ahead in July, though Capriles’ numbers appear to be rising.
However, with polls lacking consistency, it is impossible to predict the outcome of the Oct. 7 election.
There is no doubt, though, that this week’s video controversy will cause a big dent in Capriles’ campaign, hammered in further by the overwhelming state machinery of President Chavez.