Rivals seek new inroads against Venezuela's Chavez

AP News
Posted: Mar 25, 2011 1:36 PM
Rivals seek new inroads against Venezuela's Chavez

Rugged cattle ranchers put down their beers and size up the young politician in cowboy boots as he shakes hands at the country fair, trying to win support in a town considered a stronghold of President Hugo Chavez.

Leopoldo Lopez, a 39-year-old Harvard-educated former mayor and Chavez opponent, is making frequent visits to small towns like Elorza in Venezuela's rural heartland as the country's opposition tries to capitalize on discontent to make inroads in what have long been bastions of support for the socialist president.

"In order to be victorious, we must have a presence in every corner of the country," Lopez said last weekend between conversations with farmers who complained of potholed roads, government land seizures and price controls that have squeezed their incomes.

Venezuela's opposition is preparing a primary vote to choose a single candidate to challenge Chavez for the presidency next year, and Lopez is one of several politicians who hope to win it. A strong showing in legislative elections last September has given opposition leaders a renewed sense of hope.

But Chavez remains a shrewd political strategist with a populist touch that has helped him hold on to power since he was first elected in 1998. While rampant crime, inflation and other problems have eroded his poll ratings, surveys suggest Chavez remains the country's most popular politician. If re-elected for a third time in 2012, he would stay in office for another six-year term.

Chavez recently taunted the opposition, saying: "Choose your candidate. We're waiting for you."

For Lopez, the immediate task is winning over people in towns like Elorza, where he attended a festival featuring bands performing Venezuelan "joropo" folk music and freely flowing beer and whisky. Many welcomed Lopez, rushing to greet him or posing for photos alongside him.

"He's one of the few politicians who has paid attention to us and the problems we face in the countryside," said Enrique Morales, a 55-year-old rancher who supports Lopez's newly formed political party, Popular Will.

Several Chavez supporters in the crowd frowned at seeing a wealthy politician from Caracas venturing into their festival. One man shouted: "They shall not return!" _ a phrase Chavez uses to paint his opponents as the old-guard political elite.

Another Chavez supporter, farmer Jose Figueredo, said he's grateful for a plow given to him by the government and uses it to make a modest living growing watermelons, pumpkins and peppers.

"This is the first government that has helped us to be more independent," said Figueredo, while others nearby ate barbecued ribs and fried pork rinds.

Opposition hopefuls _ who charge that Chavez's government is authoritarian _ stress that unifying the many anti-Chavez factions is key.

Lopez expounded on the unity message to the ranchers at the fair, shaking so many hands that at the end of his three-day visit he had a bright red callus on his palm.

He is one of the opposition's most popular politicians, but he could easily be forced to sit out of the presidential race. Lopez _ who was mayor of a Caracas district _ has been barred from running in elections by Venezuela's top anti-corruption official, Comptroller Clodosbaldo Russian, a Chavez ally who cites an unresolved corruption case.

Lopez calls that a politically motivated attempt to sideline him. He has appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, hoping it rules in his favor. He says he would like to run for president if he is able _ and he isn't alone.

Other presidential hopefuls who are touted as possible candidates include:

_Henrique Capriles, a state governor who has gained a following as an efficient administrator.

_Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who has become one of the opposition's most visible leaders since winning his post in 2008.

_Pablo Perez, a state governor who has the backing of one of the country's strongest opposition parties.

Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado has also has been mentioned as a possible candidate, though she has not expressed an intent to run. She has become one of the most vocal opposition voices after winning a seat in congressional elections that saw the popular vote almost evenly split between the pro- and anti-Chavez camps.

She recently grabbed attention during one congressional session when she shouted at one of Chavez's Cabinet ministers: "There's one statistic that you cannot change."

She raised a placard bearing the number 649 and said: "That's the number of days left for this government!"

Opposition parties have been bickering for months over when to hold an opposition primary to pick a single presidential candidate. So far they have decided the vote will be sometime between November 2011 and March 2012, and politicians have been arguing about when would be best.

Lopez says he doesn't care when the primary is held, and that what is most important is for the opposition to come together. As he mixed with the crowd of revelers, he said: "This represents what's typical of Venezuelans: having fun together _ not divided, like the government wants us. We have to unite Venezuela again."