“I was only 11 when Chavez got into power,” said Rivas, who is campaigning for opposition leader Henrique Capriles. “But there are holes in the roads, you cannot find a job, there is crime and problems with health care and education. That’s because of 14 years in which the government hasn’t done anything.”
In no other presidential election since Chavez’s first successful run in 1998 has he faced a tougher challenge — a vigorous 40-year-old former governor who, in a mad-dash campaign across hundreds of towns, has built a following by appealing to younger voters. Two recent polls put him roughly even with Chavez.
“Young people, undoubtedly, may hold the key that decides this election,” said Juan Mijares, a Capriles campaign coordinator who tracks polling data.
The two sides are fighting over an ever-expanding and politically energized segment of the population: the estimated 7.5 million Venezuelans between the ages of 18 and 30 who make up 40 percent of the electorate.
In previous elections, the young had veered toward the government’s pledges to transform the country. But the Chavez of today is in many ways a far different man from the one who won by 26 percentage points in 2006 over a stodgy politician named Manuel Rosales.
Now 58, Chavez is recovering from chemotherapy, radiation therapy and three operations that he said removed a cancerous tumor discovered 15 months ago in his pelvic area. That has left him bloated and moving gingerly.
‘We were invisible’
But political analysts say that Chavez is a ferocious campaigner and accomplished orator with a keen insight on how to reach voters, as evidenced by other polls that give him at least a 10-point lead over Capriles.
And he has, since the beginning of his political life, adeptly cultivated the young. He created a Ministry for Youth, appointed young people to important positions in a sprawling public sector and hugs his daughters in public.
“Viva the young people!” Chavez said in a speech before thousands of mostly young followers last week. “From the fight for independence until now, the best generation has been you, the young people of Venezuela of today! And so I say, fight hard to assure the future that will be in your hands.”
To be sure, the president draws support from a multitude of young people in poor districts who believe that his policies of nationalizing private industry and spending Venezuela’s oil income on social programs give them possibilities they would otherwise not have had.