Charismatic Chavez up for another fight

The Venezuelan leader of 14 years needs to scrape every ounce of the people skills that took him to power as he faces his toughest test yet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 2:58am


Wearing a blue windbreaker and dripping sweat, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sang to a massive throng of supporters at a rally, and then dusted off one of his favourite lines: "We're going to knock out the bourgeoisie!"

During his almost 14 years in office, Chavez has earned the right to swagger. He has survived three elections, one coup and one recall attempt. Along the way, the nation rewarded him with the right to run for office indefinitely.

But as voters prepare to cast their ballots in today's crucial election, polls suggest that his rival, former Miranda governor Henrique Capriles, may not fall so easily. While Chavez is leading most surveys, others show him in a dead heat against his 40-year-old rival.

El Comandante has never been one to shy from a fight.

Born in the agricultural heartland of Barinas state, Chavez was a star pupil in the military academy. He rose through the ranks of the army to make commander by 1991. All the while, he was forming a secret society with like-minded cadets called the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement. Founded in the wake of the 1989 Caracazo riots, which left hundreds dead, the movement was bent on overhauling Venezuelan society.

The organisation burst on to the national stage in 1992, when Chavez and other mid-ranking officials tried to oust president Carlos Andres Perez. The coup attempt failed and Chavez agreed to surrender as long as he could do it on national television.

In one of the briefest and most important speeches of his career, Chavez introduced himself to Venezuela, asked his co-conspirators to stand down and took responsibility for the uprising.

"Unfortunately, we did not meet the objectives we set for ourselves - for now," he said.

The image of the idealistic officer in his red beret - a cap that would become his trademark - turned him into a phenomenon.

After spending two years in jail and eventually winning a pardon, Chavez founded a new political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, and launched his presidential bid based on overhauling the 1961 constitution.

His folksy charm and anti-establishment rhetoric struck a chord in a country that had grown weary under the ruling elite. He won the race with 62 per cent of the vote, and immediately began reshaping the nation: rewriting the constitution, changing the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and rolling out reforms. The new constitution called for new elections and he won 60 per cent of the vote in 2000.

But by 2002, the country was beginning to bristle under his socialist policies. The tensions came to a head on April 11, 2002, when he was forced out of office in a short-lived and confusing coup. He was eventually swept back into power by his supporters and a commando unit, but his foes were emboldened.

In 2004, the opposition gathered more than two million signatures needed to trigger a recall referendum. Chavez crushed the effort with 59 per cent of the vote - but this time the election was questioned by the opposition and outside observers.

The following year, Chavez embarked on one of the most controversial aspects of his administration: expropriating land in the name of food security and wealth redistribution. While those moves terrified international investors, they were largely praised by Venezuela's poorest, who see a champion in their leader.

Even as the country had been slammed with record-high inflation and one of the worst crime rates in the world, Chavez had maintained approval ratings in excess of 50 per cent, said Oscar Schemel, with the Hinterlaces polling firm. It predicts the president will win by at least a 10-point margin.

"Chavez isn't so much a president as a religious leader," Schemel said. "He has deep emotional ties with the working class. He's a preacher and a redeemer, and that's why people always forgive him."

In 2006, Chavez was up for re-election and beat Zulia governor Manuel Rosales with 63 per cent of the vote. When he began his new term, he vowed to accelerate his "21st Century Socialism" and began a programme of nationalising key industries, including Venezuela's telephone company and power generators.

But the Chavez steamroller hit a bump in June of last year, when he announced he had cancer. While he has never confirmed what type of cancer he's battling, he claims to be completely cured despite a relapse in February.

Voters also appear more jaded these days. In the sprawling Caracas barrio of Catia, Maria Rosales is wishing she had enough money to stock up on food before today's election. Her neighbours have already begun hoarding supplies in case the outcome is contested.

Whatever the result, Maria says she is likely to stay close to home; she has little enthusiasm for either candidate.

It is a far cry from the euphoria and optimism of 1998, when Maria joined the crowds who surged on to the streets to dance and sing in celebration of Chavez's first election victory. She was pregnant and hoped her unborn child would have more chance under a president who promised to help the poor.

Her daughter, Hecmary, is now 13, and Maria says those opportunities have failed to materialise, while day-to-day concerns have become overshadowed by the threat of violent crime.

"This is not the life I dreamed for her," says Maria. "We thought life would get better, and it did for the first seven years. But since then, things have got more difficult. We're going from bad to worse."

In the eyes of many voters, mismanagement, corruption and eye-watering crime rates have undermined the benefits of Bolivarian rule.

Maria has benefited from an adult-education programme and subsidised groceries. But she says food has become harder to find. "The food programme used to be great, but now you stand in line for a long time and often get nothing. Before Chavez, there was more choice."

However, his loyalists are backing him to win.

"Of course, we are worried about his health," said Juan Gabriel Orozco, who works at a Socialist Arepa Shop in Caracas, one of a chain of government subsidised restaurants. "But we know the comandante by heart, and if he says he's healthy enough to run and win, then that's all I need to know."

Just a few years ago, after winning a referendum that eliminated term limits, Chavez taunted the opposition by saying he would stay in power until 2031.

He doesn't make those claims anymore. Last Friday, he asked the nation to give him another presidential term - one that would take him to 2019.

"Whatever life I have left to live," he told the crowd. "I will give it all to the youth, and girls and boys of Venezuela."

Additional reporting by The Guardian, Reuters