One afternoon early in his campaign for reelection, Hugo Chávez arrived in Maracay, an industrial city of paper mills and textile factories near the Caribbean coast. Dressed in red, with his scarlet beret jauntily askew, the Venezuelan president told a large rally of supporters that he was thankful to God for “allowing me to have passed through this difficult past year, and to have arrived here today.”
This seemingly humble sentiment was really anything but. Careful listeners picked up on the hidden message about the divine providence of the Chávez campaign. That the president had vanquished death to run for reelection was a sign: God himself might be a Chávista.
Next week, months after the rally in Maracay, voters will elect the future president of the region’s most strategically important country. The race has been long, contentious, and ever close. Most surveys still show Chávez in the lead but with a slim, diminished margin around 10 percent, according to Datanálisis. Swing voters—known as “ni-nis”—seem to favor the center-right opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. Political observers caution that anything can happen at the polls on Oct. 7.
In Venezuela, this has been the Year of Magical Thinking—especially among the Chávistas who worry about the president’s health. Last year, Chávez revealed that he had cancer and had gone to Cuba for treatment. What cancer he suffered from remained a mystery, as he wasn’t telling and his medical files were kept under lock in Havana.
He then disappeared mostly from view. For months until his reappearance in spring, there was no other political subject worth talking about. As Luis Vicente León, a pollster from Datanálisis says, changing the political conversation was “like trying to give a speech in a disco where Chávez as DJ had the music turned up to the max.”
Then came the resurrection of the summer: miraculous—and incredibly convenient. As someone very close to Chávez told me (anonymously as he feared falling out of favor with the supreme commander), it was a welcome distraction from the wear and tear of years of failed policies. Chávez “has drawn attention away from the big problems of his administration such as its incompetence, corruption, and bureaucracy, and the nation’s criminal violence,” the source said. “He has created this dramatic scenario to ... seduce the masses because he knows that, terminally ill or not, this is his last chance.”
Indeed, even some members of his inner circle suspect that Chávez’s long battle with cancer is really an elaborate charade masterfully orchestrated in complicity with the government of Havana— and one that might win him yet another term, perpetuating his presidency for another six years.
“Chávez is on a campaign for reelection. But now it’s a miraculous campaign,” says Vladimir Gessen, a psychologist, former presidential candidate, and director of Informe21.com, a successful news site specializing in political analysis. “He’s looking to make people reason that if God is on Chávez’s side, who am I to vote against him? The people of Venezuela will never go against a miracle.”
Such miracles and magic tricks, of course, distract from the statistics. After almost 14 years of Chávez rule, this oil-rich nation of 28 million people remains one the world’s most violent countries, a nation ridden with criminality, corruption, inflation, and, above all, inefficiency.
The man who aims to change that, Capriles, has vivid dark eyes, a bright smile, and an easygoing personality that serves him well in crowds, especially among women, something I discovered while accompanying him on a tour of the country.
A lawyer by training, he cofounded the center-right political party, Justice First, in 2000, and served as the mayor of a district within the capital, Caracas, from 2000 to 2008. He has never lost an election, but this, of course, is the biggest challenge of his life—especially since he has to fight not just the candidate but, in many ways, the state itself.
During the election, the president has effectively monopolized Venezuelan TV. In response, Capriles has sought direct contact with voters, going house-to-house, village-by-village.
In the middle of August, I joined him on a tour of several forgotten towns and villages in Bolivar, a vast southern state with breathtaking landscapes of plains, mountains, and jungles and home to most of the country’s mining resources. At a checkpoint on the road out of Santa Rosa, fatigues-wearing National Guard soldiers surrounded the bus, rifles in hand, and ordered us to stop. A tall sergeant banged on the door and got on the bus. With an imperious gesture, he ordered everyone to close their windows. Capriles rose from his seat, with an outstretched hand. The sergeant rejected the proffered hand and ordered the candidate to sit down. For a moment, there was a tense silence. Then the sergeant addressed the candidate directly. “Listen: you’ve got to win these elections. We can’t continue living like this. The armed forces are still committed to democracy. So go ahead and make sure you win those elections.” And, with the same intensity as when he boarded the bus, he jumped out and ordered the caravan on its way.
Later, as we reached Bolivar City, every street was filled with people. Capriles descended from the bus and was at once enveloped by the crowd. The stage was more than a mile away, and as he and his party advanced, more and more people kept joining until it turned into a force of thousands.
Such grassroots campaigning was at times stymied by police blockades and Chávistas. In July, for example, when Capriles tried to march with his followers through La Vega, a poor neighborhood in western Caracas, a group of policemen forcefully blocked the way. Whether the police operated under the authority of Chávez and his allies or on their own is difficult to determine. But the situation was repeated elsewhere— with the same result: Capriles was kept from the voters.
When I asked him his view of this electoral contest, Capriles didn’t take swipes at Chávez but spoke in more abstract terms. “My aim on Oct. 7 is not just to become president but to usher in a new era,” he said. When I asked him specifically what that meant, he offered a slightly wonky policy response, reaffirming his commitment to curbing crime and promoting a better environment for investment. He then added for clarification: “The dispute is between a political project that looks to the past and one that looks to the future.”
In 1999, when Chávez first came to power, the economy was on the brink of bankruptcy, a calamity brought about by the combination of the severe Latin American debt crisis of the ’80s, the lackluster price of oil, as well as the traumatic and ineffective neoliberal reforms of the ’90s. And the electorate was angry, believing that public institutions were no longer trustworthy.
Chávez, a man who had tried to bring down the democratic system by force of arms in a coup seven years earlier, pitted himself as the revolutionary in chief, the spiritual heir to Simon Bolivar, the 19th- century leader and virtual national saint who helped liberate five Latin American nations from the rule of the Spanish Empire. On his inauguration day, Chávez was sworn in with his hand upon a constitution he called “moribund.”
Twice divorced, he led a hyperkinetic lifestyle, quickly burning through aides who couldn’t keep up with his frantic pace. (He was known to call his ministers at 3 a.m. to ask them for a report for the next morning.)
After entering Miraflores Palace, the seat of the presidency, Chávez introduced measures that produced spectacular changes in the country.
In OPEC meetings, he promoted a successful pricing policy that doubled the value of a barrel of oil in less than a year. A brand-new constitution boosted what he called “direct and participatory democracy.” And his government, which prides itself on social inclusion and aggressive assistance programs and cash transfers, managed to improve the lot of the poorest classes.
“His political project contributed to the empowerment of the very poorest, and let them believe that they too could reach power and forge their own destinies,” says Juan Barreto, the former mayor of Caracas and a longtime ally of the president. “Chávez restored Venezuelans’ pride in a country that had lost its patriotic spirit.”
In this country of huge inequalities, Chávez billed himself as the presidential version of a popular avenger, says Tulio Hernández, a sociologist who has studied the president’s political style. “Chávez generates unconditional infatuation and overwhelming passions similar to [that] created by illuminated preachers and rock stars.”
At home and away, Chávez became the most influential—and divisive—political leader in Latin America. With populist bombast, he asserted his country’s place in the world, taking colorful shots at his enemies. (During an appearance at the U.N. in 2006, he famously described U.S. President George W. Bush as “the devil,” telling listeners in the General Assembly: “Yesterday, the devil came here, right here. And it smells of sulfur still today”— a line that drew applause from the international diplomats.)
Though Chávez can’t quite be compared with dictators such as Augusto Pinochet or pals including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or his mentor and role model, Fidel Castro, he is undoubtedly an autocrat who operates using the power of the state to control and neutralize his opponents.
While the Chávez administration has no record of torture or “disappearances,” there are a number of political prisoners in Venezuela’s prisons, including the judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who was arrested and imprisoned without due process on direct orders from Chávez. (She remains under house arrest.) In theory, there’s freedom of speech. But his bureaucrats cripple private media through the imposition of huge fines on newspapers and other outlets such as the news channel Globovision, the only remaining TV station critical of the government. In short, the Chávez government routinely creates laws that legitimize whatever Chávez wants.
“Chávez likes to say he’s bringing 21st-century socialism to Venezuela. But in reality he’s bringing Venezuela back to the populism of the 1970s,” says Javier Corrales, a political scientist who coauthored the Chávez study titled “Dragon in the Tropics.” Corrales describes the particular Venezuelan mode of government—neither a democracy nor a dictatorship—as a “hybrid” designed to concentrate power and riches among those friendly to Chávez, while pitting Venezuelans against one another.
Chávez was born in the town of Sabaneta, on the western plains of Barinas, some 300 miles from Caracas. His parents, both schoolteachers, had six boys and only modest means, and so Chávez was sent to live with his grandmother, Rosa Inés.
“Since his childhood, Chávez has had a ... need for celebrity,” says Alberto Barrera Tyszka, coauthor of Hugo Chávez sin Uniforme, a widely acclaimed Chávez biography. “In the small, rural town where he grew up, he was chosen to give a speech—with a little microphone—to welcome the new bishop coming to the region,” says Tyszka. “Fifty years later, he’s a media monster who has turned the state into a personal advertising agency.”
As a boy, he dreamed of playing in Major League Baseball, and his childhood heroes weren’t knights or superheroes but ballplayers. He was also attracted to tales of rebels such as his great-grandfather, Pedro Pérez Delgado, a.k.a. Maisanta, a regional caudillo—half bandit, half revolutionary—who took part in several revolts against presidents and tyrants in the early 20th century.
As a grown man, he proved to be a natural leader and brought those talents to bear in the 1998 election, which he won overwhelmingly, becoming the first of a wave of left-wing leaders to take power in Latin America over the following decade.
In many ways, the two men who now compete for the presidency are each other’s opposite. Most noticeably, Chávez is getting close to 60—and he is ailing. Capriles is 40—slender and athletic. If Chávez is the outsized showman and revolutionary, Capriles seems plain common sense and pragmatism incarnate. Chávez wants to end capitalism itself; Capriles hardly ever refers to the “World Order.” When Chávez promises to transform Venezuela into a global power, Capriles instead holds out hope for improved roads and better education. And whereas Chávez talks for hours, inspiring rock-star-like adulation among his followers, Capriles isn’t exactly known for inspirational oratory flourish.
“He’s not a brilliant speaker, but he’s an accomplished doer,” a close friend of his says. “He’s also very good at leading teams. And above all, he has an acute political instinct. Henrique takes advantage of the rival’s weakness to compensate for his own flaws.”
Chávez is blunter and has described his opponent as, among other things, ignorant, mentally retarded, and a representative of the bourgeoisie. He has even called him a Nazi; an especially offensive slur, given that Capriles lost several relatives in the Holocaust. (His grandfather, a survivor of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto who settled in Caracas after World War II, created and ran a very successful chain of movie theaters still in operation.)
Despite his Sephardic Jewish roots, Capriles is a committed Catholic who explains his fervent devotion to the Virgin Mary by recalling the time he spent in prison. Accused of leading a mob to assault the Cuban Embassy in 2002 during a coup against Chávez, Capriles was later thrown in prison for four months, charged with fomenting violence outside the embassy and of illegally entering the diplomatic compound. “In my cell I had an altar with two images of the Virgin,” he says. “Once I was in solitary confinement for 20 days, totally deprived of sunlight. It was the darkest moment, a moment in which you can lose faith and fall into hopelessness. That didn’t happen thanks to the Virgin Mary.”
At the campaign rally in Maracay where Chávez launched his campaign, his followers came across as avid believers in the magical Chávez narrative. For many of those attending—wearing red T-shirts and red baseball caps—there were no doubts. One woman I spoke to, America Carvallo, a nurse, told me that Chávez meant the world to her. After almost 14 years as the father of the country, he had become so much more than a president. “He is my brother, my husband, my friend, my mother, and my father,” she said with the fervor of the faithful. “I love him, and all I want is for God to give him good health.”
Reflecting on Chávez’s legacy, Luis Duno Gottberg, a Venezuelan researcher at Rice University who studies social movements, says that Chávez has made the political discourse more inclusive. “Chávez has given visibility to many social groups that were voiceless and disenfranchised,” he says. “These groups can no longer be ignored, unless a dictatorship takes over.”
It is clear, watching the narrowing presidential race these past few months, that among the Chávistas, there is jitters about the outcome. Chávez has used the muscle of the state to increase public spending on various projects to benefit voters just before the election. Construction crews have invaded the streets, carrying bricks and mortars ... and posters of Chávez.
His rhetoric, meanwhile, has been the usual harangue against capitalism and his dreaded opponent. In a series of particularly vicious attacks, he has tried to convince voters that a Capriles win would mean the imposition of neoliberal economic policies; the dismantling of social programs; and, ultimately, civil war.
“He doesn’t refer to rivals or adversaries. He declares war on his enemies, which implies that those who oppose him must disappear,” observes Hernandez, the sociologist. “When he passes, he will be remembered as a hate preacher. His problem is that he is a man loaded with passions, ideas, and slogans but without a reasonable project.”
Capriles, for his part, has carefully avoided personal attacks or confrontation, focusing instead on retail politics, touring the country almost three times over. On the road, he has set the crowds on fire. Even in the president’s hometown of Sabaneta, Capriles was recently received by thousands of supporters. “With Capriles, it has been the first time that the opposition has managed to get round polarization and avoid confrontation in the battle that Chávez always seeks to create,” says Tyszka, the Chávez biographer.
In the final countdown to Election Day, it seems anything can happen. Even seasoned observers express uncertainty about the outcome. Is the old magician running out of tricks or will he once more prevail? In his own telling, of course, there is no doubt. He is now nothing less than transcendent.
“Chávez is not me anymore. Chávez is the whole people. Chávez is millions,” the president has said repeatedly on the stump, promising that his enemies will never defeat him. “Never, ever, because Chávez is not me. Chávez is a people—undefeated, invincible.”
Whether in fact Chávez has become invincible, the people will decide next week.