Chavez challenger wants Brazil-style changes

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 22, 2011 10:35 AM
Chavez challenger wants Brazil-style changes

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - Whizzing into a Caracas slum on his motorbike, Venezuela's young opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski jumps off to slap backs, toss a basketball and pore over scribbled petitions handed to him by locals.

A brass band strikes up, somewhat bizarrely, to the strain of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" before Capriles cuts the ribbon of a newly-refurbished school and proclaims to an adoring crowd of supporters: "Here we don't just promise, we do!"

It could be a campaign stop by President Hugo Chavez.

The opposition's leading aspirant for Venezuela's 2012 presidential election shows some of the same characteristics as Chavez: a smooth tongue, charismatic persona, love of sport and constant emphasis on social projects in the slums.

The 39-year-old governor of Venezuela's second-most populous state, Miranda, does not, however, believe in statist economics, indefinite re-election for presidents, the evils of capitalism or other central tenets of Chavez's "revolution".

A year before the South American OPEC nation's election -- set for October 7, 2012 -- Capriles leads polls to win the opposition primary vote in February and then have a crack at unseating Chavez.

"It's time to close the cycle," he told Reuters in "La Lucha" (The Struggle) shantytown on a whirlwind visit before rushing for a plane to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

"The government's only agenda today is 'How can I stay in power?' not 'How can I solve Venezuelans' problems?'"

Like the man he hopes to topple -- who went from poor rural schoolboy to coup leader to one of the world's best-known heads of state -- Capriles also has interesting personal background.

Both men have spent time in jail.

The governor's grandparents on his mother's side fled the Nazis in Poland during World War Two, arriving in Venezuela with just a suitcase stuffed with clothes and no Spanish.

"Imagine that some people in the government call me a Nazi, a neo-Nazi, can you believe it?" he said, his composure nearly slipping as he recalled his grandmother's 20 months in a Warsaw basement and her final days dying of cancer when she regressed to speaking in German and imagining herself back in the war.

His grandparents quickly set up a cinema business, and Capriles even met legendary Mexican comedian Mario Moreno -- best known as "Cantinflas" -- at his family home. "He called me his nephew!"

LULA ADMIRER

A law graduate, Capriles became Venezuela's youngest legislator at the age of 26, then won the mayorship of a Caracas municipality before beating a die-hard Chavez loyalist, Diosdado Cabello, to the Miranda governor's office in 2008.

He spent four months in jail after the chaotic days of a 2002 uprising against Chavez, and was charged with fomenting a protest at the Cuban embassy in Caracas.

Capriles insisted he had been invited into the compound by embassy staff to mediate, and he was later acquitted.

Politically, Capriles is considered a centrist, but eschews the left-right terminology beloved of analysts and the media.

"Try walking in any neighborhood of the country and asking the people if they are left or right? That is not on Venezuelans' minds," he said, arguing that better services and combating crime were of far more importance to locals.

"Venezuela has been divided for too long."

His political model is former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. "Brazil is an example to the region of how you can achieve economic growth with social vision."

Venezuela, by contrast, has shot itself in the foot by driving away private capital and failing to deliver on Chavez's theoretically laudable social ambitions, Capriles said.

"Venezuela receives less foreign investment than anywhere in the region. No one wants to put money into our country."

While Capriles's eyes are on next year's presidential election, he first has to get through the February 12 primary.

His main rivals appear to be Zulia state governor Pablo Perez, and a former Caracas district mayor, Leopoldo Lopez. Like Capriles, they are part of a new generation of younger politicians who have come to the fore in opposition circles.

The Miranda governor exudes confidence, however, saying his "brick-by-brick" style and lack of personality cult have given him the edge.

"Travel through Miranda state, there is no photo of me as governor, no poster referring to my name. You cannot build a state on 'personalization' but by incorporating everyone. That is my success as governor," he said.

Polls show Venezuelans fairly evenly divided between government supporters and opponents, with a large proportion of undecided voters in the middle.

Still, Capriles will have his work cut out to combat Chavez's formidable personality -- provided the president's recovery from cancer allows him to run a strong re-election campaign -- and vast financial resources from the nation's oil sales.

"Maybe we're naive," an aide said. "But I've been with Henrique for years, he's capable of this. We can do it."

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)