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The man who would defeat Hugo Chávez

After 12 years orchestrating his Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is preparing to run for a fourth, six-year term in power.

After 12 years orchestrating his Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is preparing to run for a fourth, six-year term in power. But a traditionally disjointed opposition has finally begun to work together to battle for his defeat in this year’s Presidential election.

To say Mr. Chávez’s tenure has been eventful would be an understatement. He survived a coup attempt which deposed him for 48 hours, an oil strike that virtually stopped all production for more than two months, and — he fancifully claimed — Washington‘s attempts to kill him last year by poisoning him with cancer. He also won a victory in overturning term limits, which means he is able to maintain power until defeated at the polls.

Chávez is a formidable foe for the country’s political opposition. His approach to the Venezuelan economy is steeped in oil. He uses profits from the $110 per barrel resource to fund popular social programs, winning deserved favor with the poor. He also owes much of his success to his indelible public relations skills, which resonate with his core support among the poor, and in the early years of his presidency, appealed to the nation’s middle class.

Living with 30 percent inflation, regular power outages, and one of the highest murder rates in the world, however, the middle class has since tired of Chávez. A tough fight lies ahead. The candidate who will take on Chávez in Venezeula’s October Presidential election will be chosen in primaries held on Feb. 12.

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Young state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski is likely to take that mantle. He’s less known outside the country than his former rival, Leopoldo López, who has spoken out against Chávez on the world stage. Mr. López was set to be the opposition’s frontrunner until the government disqualified him from holding office under a law that many critics say was simply created to stifle those with a chance at challenging the president. Despite that, López was still high in the polls until a couple of weeks ago (Jan. 24) when he stepped out of the race, redirecting his considerable momentum to Mr. Capriles’ campaign. With the support of López, Capriles is expected to win the February primary.

Unlike López and other opposition candidates who are seen as wealthy outsiders by the country’s poor, Capriles has been courting the barrios of Venezuela rather than the boardrooms of the United States, appealing to Chávez’s core support.

“He’s the only one who can penetrate the poor,” says Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela.

At a rally attended by hundreds of lively supporters in a barrio in the coastal state of Vargas, 19-year-old Luiselys Flores says she wants “a change” for her country. “Chávez is a president that believes too much in socialism,” she says, dressed in a blue Capriles t-shirt and waving the candidate’s colorful flag. “Chávez doesn’t understand the reality of what’s happening in Venezuela.”

Capriles believes a new politics is possible, whereby the poor aren’t sidelined yet the economy can grow with foreign investment. “I’m in a process of constructing a political change,” Capriles told the Monitor from his campaign headquarters in Caracas. “I don’t represent the old establishment.”

The economic crises of the ’80s coupled with open corruption of oil wealth led to two coup attempts in the early ’90s — one by Chávez himself — brought on by huge disaffection with the government. This was the original source for Chávez’s popularity.

Pablo Pérez, another young candidate, is suffering from his association with that era. The contender has received backing from the Democratic Action party, in power at the time, which many claim is no longer relevant. “Pérez represents a coalition of the past,” says Mr. Romero.

Despite coming from a rich family that owns a chain of cinemas, Capriles has taken notes from Chávez, both in terms of style and substance. He rides his motorbike into barrios, plays basketball with locals, and dresses without pomp. “If you don’t understand the social reality of this country, you’re dead,” Capriles says.

The former mayor and current governor of Venezuela’s second most populous state, Miranda, emulates more moderate Latin American leaders such as the hugely successful former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “I 100 percent follow the model of Lula,” Capriles says.

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His style represents a broader shift in Latin America today, away from the extreme left like Cuba‘s Fidel Castro and Chávez, toward more US-friendly leadership that still focuses on pushing social policies to close the region’s extreme poverty gap.

Capriles’ calculated, steady campaign, which started two years ago, isn’t so much reaching a crescendo as it’s pacing confidently along, largely ignoring Chávez.

Capriles rarely mentions Chávez by name, acutely aware that despite the president’s lack of popularity in the middle classes, many in the barrios were once — if not still — behind El Comandante, as he’s known.

Back at the Capriles rally, 55-year-old Victor Arteaga drinks from a bottle of beer on the sidelines. “I’m 100 percent Chavista,” he says proudly. “Chávez is our president and our leader. Old people, young people, all of us have benefitted…. Capriles has no chance.”