Venezuela's Capriles targets toppling Chavez

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 13, 2012 12:14 PM
Venezuela's Capriles targets toppling Chavez

By Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition primary winner Henrique Capriles oozed confidence on Monday that he can unseat President Hugo Chavez and end 13 years of socialism that foes say has left the OPEC nation in crisis.

Capriles' presidential campaign had a roaring start with an easy win in the Democratic Unity coalition's Sunday vote where high participation of nearly 3 million showed the opposition can mobilize supporters ahead of the October 7 presidential vote.

The 39-year-old center-left state governor's bid was further bolstered by a show of unity among the losing candidates from the opposition, which for years suffered from internal disputes that ultimately benefited Chavez.

"Today the country awakes to a new political reality. The future has won," Capriles told local TV, beaming in a dawn interview a few hours after his victory party wound up.

"It's clear this government's model has failed ... We have a country in crisis."

Yet with Chavez riding high in polls, still popular among the poor and spending massively on welfare projects, Capriles will need to go beyond the vague promises and feel-good factor of his primary campaign if he is to unseat the president.

His strong showing, winning 62 percent of the primary vote, will likely please investors, who react well to any news suggesting a change from Chavez's state-centered economic model.

"This result is still market positive as the opposition showed mobilization capacity and empowered the candidate," wrote Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos.

Venezuelan bonds, among the most highly traded emerging market securities, rose following Chavez's cancer diagnosis last year but slipped again as the former soldier staged what appeared to be quick recovery.


Part of a new guard of young opposition leaders, Capriles has cast himself as a fresh face in a country dominated by Chavez's militant leftism and constant confrontation.

The grandson of Polish fugitives from Nazi persecution, Capriles says he admires Brazil's "modern left" economic model, which has helped pull tens of millions out of poverty through a mix of state spending and respect for private enterprise.

"The government loves talking about revolution. Why don't we take off the 'r' and talk about evolution?" he said on Monday, in one of many catch-phrases that served him well during the opposition primary campaign.

"I am not a Messiah, I'm a public servant," he added, seeking to make a contrast with Chavez's all-dominant persona.

Capriles has promised to address the day-to-day concerns of Venezuelans such as high crime, unemployment and constantly rising prices, and spend less time on ideological crusades.

"This is what we were hoping for, a man like Capriles who has the power and the responsibility to govern this country, because Venezuela needs to change," said Leila Sutil, 58, a community organizer.

Capriles says he will maintain the best of Chavez's welfare policies, while only gradually dismantling controversial measures that include price and currency controls plus nationalizations of everything from farms to oil service companies.

He has indicated he will steer Venezuela's international alliances away from Chavez's faraway, ideologically motivated friendships with Iran, Belarus, Syria and other anti-U.S. governments.

It will be a hard sell, however, to convince voters in Venezuela's rural backwaters and urban slums won over by Chavez's potent combination of fierce nationalism, abundant charisma and huge welfare programs.

State media immediately began describing Capriles as "the candidate of the right wing."

Heavy on generalizations and in a hoarse voice, Capriles' victory speech showed his public style is still far behind the smoothly loquacious Chavez, who recently spoke for a record-breaking 9 1/2-hours in a speech to Congress.

"The guy may have won the primaries, but he's so lacking in charisma, it's not going to be easy for him ..." sniped deputy foreign minister Temir Porras via Twitter.

Opposition-leaning newspapers, however, were euphoric, enjoying a rare sense of unity and triumph.

"Now let's go to October the 7th," blazed TalCual's front page, its editor Teodoro Petkoff adding: "A large part of the nation is tired of Chavez. They're screaming it in his face."

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Vicki Allen)