Caminata in Caracas

CARACAS Sunday marked the culmination of Henrique Capriles Radonski´s surprisingly successful insurgent campaign to oust autocrat Hugo Chavez from the presidency of Venezuela.  With a week to go before voting next Sunday, October 7, Spanish newspaper ABC estimated more one million Capriles supporters staged a caminata, walking eight miles, or in many cases further, to hear their candidate make a rousing 35 minute speech in the country???s capital city.

The day was picture-perfect for a political demonstration: 75 degrees; bright, nearly cloudless skies; virtually no traffic.  Candidate Capriles stood on the back of a five-ton truck as it inched its way through the crowd to a specially constructed dais at the end of Avenida Bolivar. Excited supporters chanted slogans as their hero delighted in throwing the campaign´s national flag inspired gorras [baseball caps] to them in all directions.

At the same time in nearby Bolivar Plaza, a discretely small crowd of perhaps 500 watched outdoor interviews of a series of Chavez government officials by a lady commentator on state-owned VTV television, all of whom proclaimed that all was well in the country. Later in the day RCTV, Venezuela???s leading television channel before being shut down by Chavez, tweeted sardonically, ???Chavez is looking for people to fill the streets, while Capriles is looking for streets to put the people???.

Contrary to the politicians on the government???s own channel, all is far from well in the country. Venezuela???s economic and social trials are unprecedented in the country???s history.  Inflation averaging more than 25 percent annually for the last four years has raised havoc with citizens and the commercial sector.  The nation???s economic lifeline, state-owned oil company PDVSA, is pumping 33 percent less oil than 10 years ago, despite having the second largest proven petroleum reserves in the world. Six million of Venezuela???s 29 million citizens are either unemployed or squeezing out a below-poverty-line living as members of the so-called ???informal workforce???.

Twenty percent of the population have no reliable drinking water; poor facilities maintenance has resulted in frequent brown-outs and black-outs across the country; the security situation is so bad that a majority of citizens, when polled, fear going out of their homes after dark [violent crime is highest in the poverty-stricken barrios ??? among the people always considered Hugo Chavez´s core constituency].  Corruption, considered by economists a key factor in impeding economic development and a significant factor throughout Latin America, is pandemic throughout government and the private sector.

All this, despite Chavez having vigorously pursued his never-ending Bolivarian Revolution for nearly 14 years as president.

Little wonder Hugo Chavez faces the first major test of his popularity, a test many observers believe he will fail on Election Day. Today´s massive popular demonstration for Henrique Capriles is very possibly the largest ever in the region, and certainly in Venezuela. But it is far from the first mass demonstration of support. For the last eight weeks, huge crowds have formed wherever he has campaigned.

Winning is nothing new to Capriles.  In January 1999, aged 26, he was elected Vice President of Venezuela???s National Assembly, later becoming the youngest assembly President in its history.  He went on to winning elections as mayor of Baruta and governor of Miranda state.

Last February in a national primary to select the presidential candidate of the United Democratic Movement [MUD], organized to present a single opposition contender, Capriles won an exceptional 64 percent of the three million votes cast, in a field of five well-known candidates.

In his speech from a specially constructed dais at the end of Avenida Bolivar, broadcast live on the country???s only independent TV channel, Globovision, but ignored by VTV, Capriles both attacked Chavez??? vaunted program for the future and summarized his own.  Most dramatic was his running a list of failed and incomplete projects by the Chavez regime. Under the title ???El Gobierno No Pudo??? [the government couldn´t deliver], underscoring in every case repeatedly promised and badly needed projects: construction of badly needed housing, repair of badly maintained roads and construction of new roads and bridges, creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, establishment of needed green areas, building of specialist hospitals and creation of a new university.

During the speech, we noticed one particularly biting hand-lettered sign nearby ¨¿Te imaginas 6 años mas de esto? Tu decides!¨ [Can you imagine six years more of this? You decide!]

Something very different in Venezuelan politics occurred at the end of Henrique Capriles´ speech.  Having stood alone while speaking, as contrasted with Chavez always being surrounded by innumerable bodyguards, the 40 year old bachelor???s mother climbed up on the dais and embraced her son. The crowd roared its approval, as for more than 15 minutes mother and son waved and threw countless more campaign caps into the throng.

During the campaign, Capriles has visited more than 270 cities and towns around the country, with Chavez traveling to no more than 65. Observers believe the difference may be linked to renewed illness for the president, who in June had assured his countrymen that his cancer was in total remission.

It will be interesting to see what happens at a Chavez caminata in Caracas on Thursday.  How big will the crowds be ??? it is rumored that government workers will be given the day off? How will the president appear ??? recent photos reveal an overweight, listless Hugo Chavez?

More important, who will win the contest on October 7 — and what will the consequences be, not only for Venezuelans but also for the United States´ most important foreign petroleum provider?

Geopolitical analyst and former diplomat John R. Thomson focuses on the developing world. Former Venezuelan career Ambassador Norman Pino De Lion is a frequent contributor to leading Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.