CARACAS – In Venezuela’s brief but raucous presidential campaign, the ruling party has let Hugo Chavez do the talking. On state television, he provides words of wisdom in frequent ads, and loudspeakers at campaign rallies belt out recordings of him singing the national anthem.
And then there’s Chavez’s last speech, repeatedly played on the campaign trail, in which the self-styled revolutionary tells Venezuelans that his “irrevocable, absolute” wish is that they elect Nicolas Maduro as president should he be unable to serve. Chavez died last month at 58. Maduro, Chavez’s confidant for 20 years, is interim president.
But he is taking no chances as he tries to fend off a challenge from opposition leader Henrique Capriles in Sunday’s election, which will decide whether Chavez’s socialist system lives on for years to come.
“You decide if you want to have the son of Chavez in Miraflores (presidential palace) or a son of the biggest oligarchy there,” Maduro, 50, said last week in stump speeches, vowing to hold on to the presidential palace his former boss inhabited for 14 tempestuous years. “I am the guarantee of peace, of stability, of the continuation of Hugo Chavez’s works, of his missions, of all his projects.”
At times, though, it had seemed as if Chavez, who had won re-election against Capriles in October, is the candidate once more. Supporters at rallies shout, “I am Chavez,” just as they did when he was alive. Banners and posters with his likeness hang from buildings, and his fervent followers carry placards featuring his smiling face.
Maduro mentions Chavez every chance he can, even though it often prompts him to break down in tears. In fact, one new website that tracks how often he has uttered the late president’s name claims it has happened more than 7,000 times.
In one particularly colorful episode that has prompted much derision and delight — depending on whether the voter supports the government or not — Maduro described how Chavez came to him from the hereafter as a songbird while he prayed in a chapel.
“It started to sing, a pretty song, and looked at me. So I sang,” Maduro recounted, making flapping and chirping sounds in a segment carried on state TV. “It looked at me in a strange way, sang a while, circled around me once and flew away. And I felt his spirit, felt him giving us a blessing, saying the battle begins today and go on to victory.”
Maduro has also told voters that opting for Capriles could bring the wrath of Macarapana, a colonial-era battle site where Indians were massacred by Spaniards.
“If anyone among the people votes against Nicolas Maduro,” he said, speaking in the third person as Chavez did, “he is voting against himself, and the curse of Macarapana will fall upon him.”
Polls show Maduro comfortably ahead, meaning that “Chavismo” — the movement positing that Chavez’s 21st-century socialism is a beacon for a world tired of U.S. imperialism — is expected to survive far into the future.
That leaves the opposition in a bind.
Although Capriles, 40, is an energetic and charismatic campaigner, he has had only 10 days — the official campaign season — to try to erode the outpouring of emotion that has empowered the government since Chavez died after a long fight with cancer. The government carefully choreographed “El Comandante’s” funeral and memorials, during which speaker after speaker lauded the dead populist as one of history’s great leaders.
The effect on the masses is clear: A vote for Maduro is a vote for their beloved and departed president.
“The candidate isn’t necessarily Maduro,” Rafael Romero, a specialist on Venezuelan elections, said of the ruling party’s campaign. “He represents the last wishes of the leader, as expressed in his last words.”
Still, at Capriles’ campaign headquarters, volunteers say that their candidate is trying to cast Maduro as more focused on hero worshiping than solving the problems of a country saddled with a dysfunctional economy, a country which has one of the world’s highest inflation rates, and food shortages.
“Maduro talks of Chavez and Chavez and Chavez and Chavez and Chavez because he has nothing to offer,” said Claudia Sucre, who has been working to organize street activists. “He has Chavez’s program, but what is new that Maduro is offering the people?”
Out on the campaign trail, Capriles abandoned his toned-down strategy in October’s election, when he lost to Chavez by more than 10 percentage points. Capriles has spoken of rampant crime and electrical blackouts, while characterizing Maduro and his lieutenants as “the enchufados,” or the politically connected, leaders who pilfer state funds while the country goes to waste.
“Twenty days ago, I would have told you we weren’t going to get there,” Capriles said at a rally last week. “The country was in shock 20 days or a month ago. But our people have been opening their eyes.”
Maduro is not a seasoned campaigner. In his speeches, he rambles aimlessly as he tries to capture the kind of emotion and personal connection Chavez enjoyed with his followers.
” ‘Now it’s your turn, Nicolas,’ he (Chavez) told me. ‘Assume the leadership of the fatherland, you can do it,’ he told me, ‘what do you think?’ ” Maduro said to a crowd last week “And I told him nothing. I couldn’t talk. I tried to talk two or three times, but what I would do is end up crying.”
But the fact that Chavez handpicked Maduro, and made it clear for the country in a speech Dec. 8, is more than enough to ensure their support.
“Maduro is Chavez’s son, and we have to support” him,” said Daniela Paz, 33, who came out Thursday for Maduro’s closing campaign rally. “Since we love Chavez, we do what Chavez tells us. We’ll make our way forward with El Comandante and with Maduro.”
At rallies, people wear T-shirts reading, “Chavez, I swear, I’ll vote for Maduro.” Musicians blare out: “Chavez lives! The fight goes on.” And people scream in joy as images of the late president dancing on a rainy stage in the October campaign are shown on giant screens.
Maduro captures a bit of the old magic by sticking to the Chavez script, telling his followers that this government gave them dignity while constantly invoking the dangers of the imperialist power to the north — the United States.
He also sings with musicians who make his rallies as much about entertainment as politics. A foreign minister for six years, Maduro even joins followers in a rousing rendition of one crowd favorite, “Yankee Go Home.”
“These are the people of Chavez, and Chavez is still at the forefront, offering his example, with his love,” Maduro said. “We are going to have Chavez around for a while.”