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Chavez vs. Capriles: Corruption takes center stage in Venezuela’s election

Opposition candidate Capriles expelled his top aide after a film showed him accepting cash from an unknown source. Are corruption accusations enough to push his campaign off track?

Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski expelled a top aide last Thursday amid corruption charges that could prove damaging to his campaign less than a month before Election Day.

Deputy Juan Carlos Caldera was filmed receiving a cash payment from a blurred-out figure, which Mr. Caldera claimed was a donation for his own mayoral campaign. Government officials are alleging the money was a bribe for political favors related to Mr. Capriles’ campaign, however.

President Hugo Chavez‘s challenger quickly distanced himself from the episode and denounced the act: “I’m never going to permit anyone [to] use my name for their own personal benefit,” Capriles said.

Corruption has plagued Venezuelan, and much of Latin American, politics for decades. From the infamous RECADI exchange rate scandal where millions of dollars were passed in bribes and false government credits, to the impeachment of former President Carlos Andrés Pérez on embezzlement charges, many are disappointed that the most serious challenger President Chávez has faced during his 13 years in office may have already fallen victim to political pitfalls, bearing resemblance to corrupt governments of the past.

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“Corruption in Venezuela has definitely increased,” says Mercedes de Freitas director of the anti-corruption NGO, Transparencia Venezuela. “The size of the state has increased, public workers and funding have increased. However, the systems of control and penalties have not.” Venezuela currently ranks 172 out of 183 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the lowest rated country in the region except for Haiti.

The release of the video may damage what some say was the already slim chance Capriles may have had in attaining the presidency, but others attest his quick reaction to the leaked, secret video set a good – and starkly different – approach to dealing with corruption in Venezuela.

“Capriles demonstrated a different way of dealing with corruption” by quickly expelling Caldera, says political analyst and radio host, Vladimir Villegas.

Old promises

Corruption is not usually central to the political debate in Venezuela says Luis Vincente Leon, president of the polling firm Datanalisis.

“There are lies on both sides, and people have become accustomed to not believing the exaggerations from one side or the lies of the other.”

But President Chavez himself rode into office in 1998 on an anti-corruption campaign, promising to create “a more authentic democracy” and end the dishonest practices of previous governments. Yet his government too has fallen under scrutiny for corruption and many of the accused have held on to their political positions despite accusations.

In April, Supreme Court Magistrate Eladio Aponte Aponte sought political asylum in the United States. Mr. Aponte Aponte claimed the Chávez government has ties to drug traffickers and that he was regularly contacted by officials, including the president, to interfere with the outcome of criminal cases.

President Chávez denied the allegations, saying they were nothing more than “rumors fabricated as part of a psychological war,” referring to Aponte Aponte as a “delinquent” on state television.

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Ms. de Freitas laments the lack of transparency in Venezuela’s campaigning and government, noting that the comptroller general’s office lacks funding and personnel. This office is in charge of monitoring government employees, services, and keeping public expenditures in check. According to de Freitas, the comptroller general’s funding has stagnated for the past four years and “is currently operating with 50 percent of the personnel it had in 2000.

“If changes aren’t made corruption will only increase,” de Freitas says.

Familiar faces

While the specific details and origins of the recently released video are still under debate, the government has launched a political offensive linking Caldera’s actions to Capriles and demanding an investigation of his campaign finances.

“We will do everything in the power of the Assembly to investigate this with the utmost consequences,” said Diosdado Cabello Rondón, president of the National Assembly, on state television.

Caldera claimed to be meeting Luis Peña, aide to the Venezuelan Shipping magnate Wilmer Ruperti. Mr. Ruperti entered the national spotlight in 2002 when he helped President Chávez ship gasoline to Venezuelan ports during the 2002-2003 PDVSA state-oil worker strike.

Caldera has assumed full responsibility and insisted the video was set up on purpose to tarnish Capriles’ image.

According to Venezuelan campaign financing rules, private donations are permitted as long as they’re declared to the National Electorate Council at the end of the campaign. “If [Caldera] was receiving the money just for his campaign the act is legal,” explains de Freitas from the anti-corruption NGO.

“We have no way of knowing if Deputy Caldera was going to declare,” she says.

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Powerful visuals

“This video is very powerful,” says Mr. Leon from Datanalisis. The government can now present visual evidence to its claims” – that Capriles’ business friendly policies mirror former corrupt politicians and are not in the interest of Venezuelans – airing it constantly and “connect[ing] it with … topics that are in my opinion infinitely more potent.”

Given the volatility of the video this late in the election, Leon says, Capriles’ campaign may not be able to overcome the damage. “I don’t think the corruption battle is one the government [will] lose.”