It is not a comparison the presidential hopeful easily casts aside as Venezuela’s campaign season kicks into gear. When Chavez came on the political scene as a trim, 44-year-old former army paratrooper, his fresh face and revolutionary ideas made him a viable alternative to the established order. He won big.
Now Capriles, who has a wiry athletic build and is 39, is offering a similar break — not only from the aging opposition politicians who came from the two-party system Chavez replaced but also from the president himself.
“I think the government is tired,” Capriles said in an interview in the midst of his campaign here. “It’s a government that talks and talks, promises and promises, but you cannot live on that. It is 14 years in power. We have to close the cycle.”
Capriles faces an uphill battle, but polls released late last year showed him closer to the president than any other politician who has challenged Chavez. On Sunday, Capriles is expected to emerge from a field of five opposition leaders in a first-ever primary designed to choose one strong candidate who could end Chavez’s long rule in October’s presidential election, according to the Caracas-based pollster Datanalisis.
The very fact that a primary is taking place — one in which various parties are represented — demonstrates how a once-fractured opposition has united, political analysts say. Aside from Capriles, two other candidates are younger than 45 and come with new ideas that make it difficult for Chavez to characterize them as part of the old, corrupt order that he smashed in his rise to power.
“There was once no unity. There were centrifugal forces but no structure,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the head of the United Democratic Platform, an anti-Chavez coalition that is organizing the primary. “We have advanced strongly and are now more coherent and more consistent, with a clearer message than before.”
The primary arrives after a year in which Chavez underwent delicate surgery in Cuba to remove a cancerous tumor. Four chemotherapy sessions followed, leaving him temporarily bald. Chavez says he has recovered, though he has not provided a detailed medical prognosis or disclosed what kind of tumor he had.
But since October, his activities have picked up, first with phone calls to state television and later with appearances. He has hosted summits of Latin American leaders, returned to his role as host and central guest of his Sunday television show and joshed around with visitors such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“The management of his health problems has been brilliant,” said Carlos Romero, a political scientist here. “Some people spoke of the possibility of a transition because President Chavez only had a few remaining days left. But six or seven months have passed, and Chavez is not only recuperating his health but also he is recuperating his leadership.”