Teenage girls scream, fishermen fallen on hard times thrust tatty documents forward and crowds swallow Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles’ fist-pumping figure at chaotic stops along the Caribbean coast.
Venezuela’s young opposition front-runner is all energy as he crisscrosses the South American nation ahead of a Feb. 12 primary likely to make him Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s challenger in this year’s presidential election.
Though he has four rivals in the Democratic Unity coalition primary, the 39-year-old state governor is well ahead in polls and already looking forward to matching the socialist president’s own pumped-up style in an Oct. 7 duel.
“What you see here is like 1998 when Chavez ran for the first time. He didn’t have the machinery, but he did have the people,” Capriles said on a recent campaign tour, sweating from the heat at the back of a bus before his next walkabout in Cumana town.
“I’m younger than Chavez. I have an energy that he doesn’t have. He’s in a comfort zone. And you know the best thing? He thinks he can’t lose. I hope he keeps believing that,” he said.
Chavez is one of the best -campaigners Latin America has ever seen: He came from behind to sweep the 1998 election and has won most of a dozen national votes since then, helped by his own charisma and tramp-the-streets style.
Yet he is nearly two decades older than Capriles and with doctors pleading him to go easy after traumatic cancer surgery last year, Chavez is unlikely to match past energy levels and may rely on more “virtual” campaigning this year via TV.
Though himself a center-left politician, Capriles — a lawyer by training with 13 years as a legislator, mayor and now governor of Miranda State — said Chavez’s socialism has largely been a disaster for Venezuela despite some gains for the poor.
“They call themselves socialists but they are far from modern socialism. This is a completely failed statist model,” Capriles said.
From a wealthy family with a cinema chain and other business interests, Capriles professes himself a follower of Brazil’s model of free market economics with a strong social commitment.
He wants to build on and improve what he sees as the best of Chavez’s 13 years — free healthcare in slums, for example — while gradually rolling back some of the most radical economic policies, like currency controls and nationalizations.
Polls show Capriles’ own record in office, energetic style, avoidance of confrontational rhetoric and emphasis on education, employment and security give him the best chance of beating Chavez among the five opposition primary candidates.
A keen sportsman who frequently rides a motorbike to work and spends more time in shanty towns than his office, Capriles has cultivated an on-the-street image that galvanizes his followers and, analysts say, could sway some wavering Chavez supporters.
“I prefer to do, rather than talk,” he said, marking a difference with Chavez’s daily speeches, one of which this month hit a probable world record of nine-and-a-half hours. “Less politics and more work is what Venezuela needs.”
Though way ahead, Capriles is not a complete shoo-in for the candidacy of an opposition that appears to have finally learned from years of in-fighting that has helped Chavez cement his dominance of the South American OPEC member nation.