By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 19, 2006
CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chávez exercises broad power over Venezuela. His allies sit on every seat in the National Assembly. His supporters stack the Supreme Court. And every futile opposition effort to oust him, from a coup to a national oil strike to a recall referendum two years ago, has left him stronger and his foes weaker.
But now, with Chávez buffeted by setbacks abroad and rising complaints about rampant crime, corruption and mismanagement at home, the opposition has united in recent weeks to mount a vigorous, if extremely difficult, challenge to unseat him.
Analysts say they believe Chávez will ultimately win the Dec. 3 presidential election. Still, there are signs the government is anxious about a strong showing by the opposition, prompting an avalanche of pro-Chávez ads, which his foes say are paid for with state funds, and a campaign to pressure state employees to vote for the president or face dismissal.
At opposition rallies, loudspeakers on trucks blare the message "Dare to," as in dare to vote against Chávez and his party, the Fifth Republic Movement. Thousands have flooded streets for anti-government marches and rallies, a reminder of the multitudes who emerged in 2002, when the opposition movement reached its peak before its long, hard fall.
"We are united, and we are sure we're going to win," said Henry Parras, an engineer dressed in the three colors of the Venezuelan flag during a recent protest that brought tens of thousands into the streets of this gritty capital.
"There are so many people, no exaggeration," he said, waving his arms as fellow government foes blew whistles and shouted for Chávez to leave office. "Just look at it. This is the reality. Just look at it."
Disparate factions, from former guerrillas to industrialists to right-wing radicals who had once advocated a boycott of the election, have coalesced behind Manuel Rosales, a wiry pit bull of a candidate who does not mince words when calling for a change in government.
In most polls, Rosales trails Chávez by at least 20 points. Nonetheless, some polls show him with the support of more than 30 percent of the electorate, up from just 9 percent in August. Political analysts attribute the surge to Rosales's constant criticism that Chávez, in buying Argentine bonds and providing aid to Africa and El Salvador, has wasted the country's oil revenue while ignoring festering problems at home.
"We see him as a failed government," Rosales said in an interview at his headquarters in an elegant neighborhood of Caracas. "No one understands how the government is giving away Venezuela's riches, as part of a political and ideological strategy, when there are bad services, a bad health system, a bad education system, bad policies for housing construction."
The government, meanwhile, has ignored Rosales almost completely and is focusing instead on President Bush, whom Venezuela's leader has portrayed as the country's archenemy.
In recent months, Chávez has not let up his verbal barrage against the White House, which in 2002 offered tacit support for a coup that failed two days after its start. He has toured the world to warn of the American threat and called Bush the "devil" during a rambunctious speech at the United Nations in September.
Polls show Venezuelans are worried about crime, unemployment and inflation, which rose to a one-year high of 15.5 percent in October, not about an invasion from the north. But billboards and banners draped across roadways announce what this election is about for Chávez's government -- the fight against the imperialists and their leader.
"Vote against the devil," says one banner. "Vote against the empire."
In speeches, when Chávez does mention members of the opposition, he portrays them as lackeys of the Americans, arguing that they are busy hatching a diabolical "Plan B" to oust him or to undermine the results of the election by refusing to recognize his victory. He said he has his own plan, Plan Che, named after the Argentine guerrilla martyr, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
"If they force us to activate Plan Che, they will be sorry for 5,000 years, they will be sorry all their lives," Chávez said in an impassioned address. "Not just the imperialists here but their owners in the United States."
Martín Pacheco, one of Chávez's most trusted campaign advisers, said Chávez's campaign is focused on obtaining 10 million votes from a total of 16 million eligible voters. "So there's no doubt, in any sector of the country or internationally, of the leadership that the president has," Pacheco said in an interview in his downtown Caracas office.
Opposition strategists say Chávez's constant warnings about invasions and assassination plots are figments of his imagination, and they are optimistic that Venezuelans are tired of the bluster. The opposition has dropped its one-track message of the past -- that Chávez should simply leave -- a demand that offered no alternative.
Unlike most other opposition politicians, Rosales strolls through poor neighborhoods and, in his raspy cadence, details one social problem after another that affect the poor, Chávez's base. He says that tens of thousands of Venezuelans have become homicide statistics under Chávez's watch, and he notes that Transparency International recently ranked Venezuela as the second most corrupt country in Latin America, after Haiti. He also derides Chávez's failed efforts to obtain a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, a setback attributed to Chávez's caustic speech on the floor of the General Assembly in September.
"Rosales is talking to the Chavistas," said Enrique Ochoa, chief of operations for the Rosales campaign. "We had given Chávez the gift of discourse on social themes. Now we have an opposition that talks of social justice, of the poor. We used to have an opposition just happy to be an opposition."
Rosales, who grew up in the steamy countryside of oil-soaked Zulia state, has been aggressively trying to carve a space for himself in a political environment long dominated by Chávez.
A governor with a generation of political experience, including membership in the now-discredited Democratic Action Party, Rosales is trying every trick of the trade, from headfirst attacks on Chávez's so-called Bolivarian revolution to embracing old-style Latin American populism. He has generated worldwide attention for his proposal to issue a debit card -- called "My Black Lady" -- that would provide hundreds of dollars to poor families, all from oil proceeds.
In teeming neighborhoods that ring this city, though, there is an inherent distrust of Rosales and the rest of the opposition. Chávez supporters have viewed opposition tactics as anti-democratic, like last year's decision to pull out of congressional races, a strategy that was aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the government but that ultimately gave Chávez complete control of the 167-seat National Assembly.
"They don't understand that they've lost and Venezuela has changed," said Daisy Espinoza, 54, as she watched a Chávez rally on state television. "We know here what the president has done for us."
In conversations, many poor Venezuelans cited Chávez's vast expenditures, especially on subsidized food, literacy programs and health care, as improving their lives. The spending is enormous: Rafael Ramírez, president of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, said nearly $8.3 billion in company oil revenue had been funneled toward government social programs in the first nine months of this year. For all of 2005, the company spent $7.3 billion.
The programs help people such as Isalenis Arevalo, 24, who takes her 4-month-old baby to see a doctor, for free, in the poor neighborhood where she lives. "Before, you had to buy medicines, you had to go to clinics and get charged high prices," she said, holding her infant inside her doorway. "The doctors didn't come to the barrios."
Flush with oil profits that have fueled the highest growth rate in Latin America, Chávez handed public workers $3 billion in Christmas bonuses a month and a half early. The government has also been hard at work finishing infrastructure projects, including a subway line in Caracas and a bridge to boost commerce between Venezuela and Brazil.
But the campaign isn't taking chances. Ramírez, the oil company president, recently told workers in a speech that was secretly recorded that Chávez was the "maximum leader of the revolution" and had the complete support of the company. "Whoever doesn't feel comfortable with this orientation will have to cede his place for a Bolivarian," Ramírez said.
The video was disseminated by the opposition, which cited it as proof that the government was coercing workers. "It's blackmail," Rosales said in the interview. "If you don't dress in red, they'll throw you out."
The president, though, never backs down. He quickly defended Ramírez.
"Petroleos de Venezuela workers are with this revolution, and those who aren't should go somewhere else. Go to Miami," he said, noting that other agencies, from the army to the tax collection agency, are "red, very red."