VALENCIA, Venezuela — Henrique Capriles liberally tosses baseball caps emblazoned with the colors of the Venezuelan flag into the thick of an adoring crowd.
A scramble ensues to catch what has become a symbol of his campaign to unseat Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s socialist president, who is accused by his youthful opposition rival of polarizing the country between Chavez’s red-shirted followers and Capriles’s own supporters, dubbed “the squalid ones” by the abrasive leader.
The 40-year-old Capriles has seized on the red, yellow and blue cap — a contrast to the red beret preferred by Chavez, a former paratrooper — to emphasize his message of reconciliation and inclusiveness in a country he says is tired of confrontation after almost 14 years of “Bolivarian revolution.”
“I don’t care about [the color of] the shirt you want to wear, what I care about is progress,” Capriles roared at a campaign rally this week, to cheers from supporters waving flags of all colors.
The business-friendly law graduate, who admires Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, has a little more than a week left before presidential elections on Oct. 7 to persuade Venezuelans that Chavez’s government has squandered an oil boom, with little to show for it but unfulfilled promises.
“The model to follow is Brazil,” Capriles told a Financial Times reporter in the back of his campaign bus, after changing his sweat-drenched shirt at the end of an exhausting day of campaigning in the western city of Valencia last weekend.
Although derided by Chavez as a “neoliberal,” Capriles describes himself as a “progressive,” underlining the need to boost private investment, which has collapsed after heavy-handed state intervention in the economy, while maintaining Chavez’s popular social programs.
Lacking Chavez’s almost unlimited access to media and oil-fueled public finances, Capriles has embarked on a feverish “door-to-door” tour of the country, visiting more than 250 communities since July, often several a day at different ends of the country, from remote settlements in the Amazon and the Andes to cattle-ranching plains and urban slums.
“I’m tireless,” he said, still fizzing with energy after a day of blowing kisses at his swooning female admirers, having babies thrust in his face for blessings and autographing tricolor baseball caps.
Capriles’s hyperkinetic grass-roots campaign contrasts with that of Chavez, who is recovering from cancer and has preferred to address voters on television or hold mass rallies in select locations. The normally garrulous president’s speeches have been scarcer and shorter than usual, sparking speculation that his recovery may not be as complete as he claims.
The challenger’s strategy appears to be working, with polls showing an increasingly tight race: The latest from well-regarded Consultores 21 gives Capriles a slight lead, although the equally respected Datanalisis puts Chavez 10 points ahead.
Enthusiastic crowds meet Capriles wherever he goes. “He’s a rock star,” said Alejandro Barrios, an old friend. “He wasn’t like that at school, though,” Barrios noted, claiming that Capriles used to be “extremely shy” and that the athletic man affectionately known by his followers as “El Flaco,” Spanish for thin, used to weigh 66 pounds more than he does now.
“I’ve never seen anyone change for the better like he has,” Barrios said, explaining that it wasn’t until university that Capriles developed a taste for exercise, especially basketball and jogging — and women. “He was quite a womanizer,” he said. “He had a lot of girlfriends.”
One important change, according to Barrios, came during the four-month period Capriles spent in prison after he was accused of inciting a mob outside the Cuban Embassy and invading the premises during an attempted opposition coup in 2002.
Although he claims that as mayor of the local district he was just trying to calm things down, he served his sentence — just as Chavez did after his own 1992 coup attempt — and says that he became a more devout Catholic, wearing a cross around his neck ever since.
Chavez, 58, has seized on the episode in a bid to link his adversary to the discredited generation of politicians that ruled the country before he swept to power, stoking fears that Capriles represents a return to the past. The president also accuses Capriles, born into a wealthy family that owns a large cinema chain, of being a rich kid who doesn’t understand or care about Venezuela’s majority poor.
Chavez rarely calls Capriles by his name and instead has invented a range of colorful insults. Earlier this year, he called him a pig five times in two sentences. Others have gone further.
“They say I’m a drug addict, that I’m gay — come on, please!” Capriles scoffed. “They even call me a Nazi — what a nerve,” he said, adding that he had to respond to that particular accusation “in honor of my great-grandparents,” who died in a Nazi concentration camp.
But such tactics failed to prevent Capriles from beating one of Chavez’s closest allies to win the governorship of the country’s second biggest state, Miranda, which has a large population of urban poor.
As governor, Capriles worked successfully with “chavistas,” valuable experience if he wins the presidency, since Chavez supporters will remain in control of many state institutions, as well as the national legislature.
“This is a historic opportunity,” Capriles said. “If I don’t win, if I get it wrong, a whole generation will fall off the cliff. A country’s hopes will be dashed.”