Arriving here on the eve of August vacations, with even the long, pocked freeways hinting of a rare lull in their tumultous traffic, one's senses are assaulted by the blare of this country's politics.
At near midnight on a Monday, the last television channel is signing off after an hour-long interview with one of the presidential candidates, the current president's favorite, who speaks at length of fiscal policy and shifting votes. The next morning, at 7, his rival is back on the screen, promising to join in a nationally televised campaign debate.
The newspapers are chocked with inside stories of the campaign and full-page ads from the country's two major parties. The current opposition party promises a major rally and nationally televised speech by the candidate it says will begin "the new era for venezuela."
UNDER THE FREEWAYS, where workers in cotton shirts unbuttoned to the waist await commuting vans, concrete walls are papered with green-and-white posters of the opposition Democratic Action candidate. "Jaime," they proclaim, "is like you," a phrase critics claim was stolen from the book of Jimmy Carter.
The cacophony of political pronouncements, slogans and debates in fact is just a prelude of the campaign to came.
The first candidates made themselves known only months after the current president, Luis Herrera Campins of the Christian democratic Copei party, took office for a five-year term in early 1979. A year ago, Herrera's protege, Rafael Andres Montes de Oca, was already preparing his major fund-raiser in the coastal town of Valencia.
By the time of the actual elections in December 1983, Venezuela will be flooded with more than $100 million worth of campaign advertising and propaganda, if past races are any indication--more than $5 for each of the 14 million Venezuelans. And as soon as a new president is elected, the 1988 campaign doubtless will begin.
In another country this outpouring of time, rhetoric and money might lead to calls for electoral reform and restraints on partisan activity. But in Venezuela, 24 years after the overthrow of the last dictator, the nation's politicians and its citizens seem to want politics as an irreversible part of daily life.
Venezuelan democracy, as an abstract concept, is popularly revered here--like a first-class soccer team in the continent's southern dictatorships. It is the theme of a constant cadence of boasts, analysis, and prideful reflection by newspaper columnists and taxi drivers.
Everyone seems to have his own idea of why and how democracy can be "perfected," here, and politicians of all stripes seem to begin every speech with a careful paean to democratic institutions and their virtues.
"For someone from the United States, it might be hard to understand," a television host explained. "But here, we have to do it. It's the only way to make sure our democracy keeps going--to just drum it in to people all the time."
AT THE MOMENT, there seems to be more drumming than action on the presidential front. The two major parties--Democratic Action and Copei--do not have U.S.-style primaries to determine their candidates, but a convention.
For now, Jaime Lusinchi, a doctor and longtime political activist, has been all but officially crowned as the Democratic Action candidate, while former president Rafael Caldera is widely expected to run for Copei and face the burden of defending the record of President Herrera.
The Democratic Action apparatchiks, meanwhile, were set astir recently by the report that American Joseph Napolitan, their consultant for the last two campaigns, was unhappy with the favored slogan, "Jaime is like you."
"We don't need Napolitan," moaned one party activist, "We've learned enough. We've already had a memo war on that slogan, and now we have to have an adviser war as well. That's what has happened to our politics."