Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate wages fierce campaign

Henrique Capriles, the charismatic Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors, warns of problems if pro-Chavez acting president remains at the helm

Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, the Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors, greets supporters as he campaigns in Maracay, Venezuela, on Thursday. (photo credit: AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, the Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors, greets supporters as he campaigns in Maracay, Venezuela, on Thursday. (photo credit: AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate says he’ll cut off subsidized oil to Cuba, distance his country from nations that disrespect human rights and shore up the South American country’s own troubled economy with the billions it now sends abroad to socialist friends.

Henrique Capriles also told The Associated Press in an interview that he will seek better ties with Washington — always strained under the late President Hugo Chavez — but will demand respect from US leaders, who he says have neglected Latin America.

And the challenger predicted more tough times ahead for oil-rich Venezuela if acting president and ruling party candidate Nicolas Maduro wins the April 14 election. He called Maduro incapable of governing this polarized nation and said its wealth of economic problems ultimate would force Maduro to resign or be forced out.

“Whatever the outcome, I don’t see how Nicolas Maduro has the capacity to stay for an extended time in government,” Capriles asserted after staging a rock-star-like rally late Thursday in the central coast city of Maracay, traditionally a Chavista stronghold.

“He will have to resign, abandon (the presidency) if he’s able to win,” Capriles said.

He did not elaborate on what would come, but in the back of many Venezuelans’ minds is the unrest and violence that accompanied a brief 2002 coup against Chavez and a prolonged, opposition-led general strike against Chavez in 2003-2004.

Capriles, governor of Venezuela’s most populous state, is waging a desperate campaign to unseat Maduro, who was foreign minister and vice president to Chavez and became acting president before Chavez died March 5 of cancer. Capriles lost to Chavez in an October election, but again is cross-crossing the country to rally supporters.

The abbreviated campaign has been marked by personal insults as Capriles insists Maduro is no Chavez, still beloved by millions. Capriles has tried to reassure voters he won’t take away their state social programs while promising to address high crime, high inflation, nagging food shortages and recurring power outages.

Maduro’s campaign strategy is to incessantly invoke Chavez, who tapped Maduro as his successor. He warns voters their social programs are at risk if Capriles wins, accuses foes of conspiring to destabilize the country and promotes his ties to an armed forces politicized by Chavez.

Exactly one month to the minute after Chavez’s death, Maduro, members of Chavez’s family and government officials paid tribute to the late president at the Caracas army barracks that hosts Chavez’s tomb. Cannon shots were fired and taps played, followed by a remembrance mass.

Capriles previously had announced he had spoken with commanders he didn’t identify about possible Cabinet posts. On Thursday, he said he believed most of Venezuela’s 200,000 soldiers don’t support Defense Minister Diego Molero’s public endorsement of Maduro, an endorsement that violated Venezuelan laws that mandate the military’s impartiality.

Capriles vowed to stop financing other nations with cheap oil and to redirect Venezuela’s oil riches toward solving its own poverty. One of his first acts as president, he said, would be to expel Cuban military advisers from Venezuela’s armed forces.

“We are giving to the Castro brothers’ government … nearly $4 billion a year,” he said. “Because of that, the Castros love the possibility that this government remains.”

The government stresses that in exchange for oil, Cuba has dispatched thousands of doctors and nurses who provide free medical attention in poverty-stricken areas that historically lacked services. Capriles has said previously he’d send the doctors home.

Capriles said he’d quickly chill ties with Iran and Syria that Chavez boosted.

“We have to take a look at the affinity we have toward Iran, beyond our shared interest as oil producers. There is none,” he said. “With the Syrian government, there is none.”

Venezuela has sent several shipments of diesel fuel to Syria’s embattled regime.

“My political orientation is for democracy, not these authoritarian governments where human rights are trampled upon,” Capriles declared.

The candidate said he wants better relations with Washington, but on an equal footing. Chavez frequently accused the United States of trying to unseat him, and Maduro has suggested it somehow injected Chavez with cancer.

Washington briefly embraced Chavez’s ouster in the 2002 coup. The two countries haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010. In March, Washington expelled two Venezuelan diplomats after Caracas expelled two US military attaches for allegedly trying to turn Venezuelan soldiers against their government.

“I believe the United States has been erratic in its relationship with Latin America. It’s made mistakes,” Capriles said.

“I had big expectations of President Obama, that Obama was going to reach out to the South,” he said. “The United States doesn’t take into account the South’s importance, and it must change the way it relates” to Latin America.

“We sell oil to the United States and we buy products from the United States,” Capriles continued. “These are the huge contradictions of this (Maduro) government — it talks and it talks, yet it even imports gasoline from the United States.”

Capriles blamed Maduro, as interim president, for a devaluation of Venezuela currency that weakened citizens’ buying power. He also blamed Maduro, and Chavez before him, for frequent power outages, 23 percent inflation and rampant crime.

Capriles dismissed some polls that suggest Maduro, bolstered by enduring empathy for Chavez and a massive state elections machine, will win handily.

“Of course I can win,” he said. “The act of voting is a rational, and emotional, act. I feel that that emotion is on this side. Maduro lacks charisma and leadership, he said.

As for Chavez’ popularity rubbing off on his hand-picked successor, Capriles said “I don’t believe in hereditary leadership.”

Capriles’ own charisma was on full display at a boisterous rally in Maracay’s central boulevard before the AP interview — a 10-block display of passion among thousands that nearly resulted in disaster.

Whipped up into a near-frenzy by speaker after speaker over a waiting period of three hours, mobs pushed through successive security barriers until, by the time Capriles launched into his stump speech, dozens were crushed against a fence, struggling to breathe, the old and young alike crying and pleading for help.

Several people climbed building railings to escape the crush. Capriles’ security detail pulled people from the crush. Crying children were separated from their parents; emergency personnel administered oxygen to a man prone on the ground. Dozens were taken for medical treatment.

When it was over, one of Capriles’ aides found a wedding ring on the ground. She shook her head.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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