“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.
“We were invisible, we were questioned, we were criminalized in the past,” said Ruben Loiza, 30, among the organizers of a group of artists, musicians and dancers supportive of the president. “We see Chavez, and we note how our families are thankful because those things that happened in the past are now taking place less and less.”
On a recent day, a determined group of the president’s young supporters flooded a busy street, passing out fliers and posters with his image to motorists stuck in traffic.
Taking a break from shouting slogans, Sony Sanchez, 27, rattled off various state programs — from subsidized markets to neighborhood medical care — that have benefited her family. She noted proudly that she is studying crisis management at a public university tied to the armed forces, for free.
“I think this government has given opportunity to young people to realize their dreams,” she said. “Before, a young person couldn’t be sure of having a place in a university.”
Still, that kind of solid support has dissipated as Venezuelan companies have closed and the economy has become ever more dependent on oil. The soaring homicide rate also is particularly worrisome to young people, since most of the victims and perpetrators are young men. Just Saturday, three Capriles campaign workers were killed in the rural state of Barinas in a confrontation with Chavez supporters, officials said.
After the trouncing Chavez gave Rosales six years ago, in the opposition’s darkest hour, a group of university students rose up when the president pulled the plug on an opposition TV network and tried to push through a constitutional change that would broaden his powers. They held sit-ins and hunger strikes and organized lively street protests.
Roberto Patiño, 23, who recently graduated from college, came of age during those protests. He said an increasing number of young people believe Chavez has become an autocrat whose policies are leading Venezuela to ruin.
“Capriles represents the leadership of a team in which we have a role and something to give, where we are needed to build the Venezuela we want,” Patiño said. “On the other side, there is a messianic leader, where Chavez is the only leader.”
Struggling to earn a living
Genny Zuniga, a sociologist who closely tracks economic data at the Catholic University in Caracas, the capital, said the country’s troubled economy and what she calls the poor prospects for young workers may drive younger voters to Capriles.
She said 42 percent of the working population is in the informal sector, often selling food or clothes on the street, uninsured and without a pension or other benefits. Studies show that half of young adults have only nine years of schooling.
“Here, to sell hamburgers at McDonald’s, they ask you for a high school degree,” Zuniga said.
But she said that government interventions in private business are making things worse, asphyxiating the economy and making it unable to generate high-quality jobs, and that many young Venezuelans are simply leaving the country.
“We don’t have a solid labor market,” she said, “nor do we have a working population that is improving itself.”
Concern about the future is what has made Angie Rivas put her stock in a future with Capriles.
“I think what Chavez had to give he’s given, and so I’m going to vote for progress,” she said. “A young person dreaming of the future with Chavez sees a future in another country. I think the Venezuelans deserve to dream about a future here in Venezuela.”