Battle for Venezuela’s presidency in overdrive

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The struggle over succession to Venezuela's presidency was in overdrive during the week prior to the death of President Hugo Chavez on March 5. The likely contenders in elections constitutionally mandated to take place within 30 days after a president departs were engaged in contentious verbal battle.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who was favored by Chavez, is the presidential candidate of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. He is at loggerheads with right wing Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who took 44 percent of the vote in presidential elections last October 7.

Maduro, who had monitored Capriles' travels to Colombia and the United States, claims Capriles was lining up future support from pro-business backers outside Venezuela.

As a likely candidate for some or all right wing opposition parties, Capriles will be up against big odds in contesting a political movement claiming remarkable social gains over Chavez' 14-year long presidency. Health care, education, housing, food distribution, and job creation initiatives brought extreme poverty down from 23 to eight percent, middle income household spending from just over $2,000 per capita to almost $4,000, and increased school enrollment from 6.2 to 7.5 million students.

By contrast, the 40-year-old Capriles' background is basically one of steady accumulation of personal wealth. His businessman father brought Kraft Foods Corporation into Venezuela. After becoming a lawyer, Capriles took graduate courses in the Netherlands, Italy, and at Columbia University in New York.

Vice President Maduro told reporters Capriles went to Colombia recently to meet with "paramilitary groups" and a well known but unnamed enemy of President Chavez. He indicated that as of March 1, Maduro was in Miami where he met with exiled Venezuelan bankers and representatives of former U.S. State Department officials, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega. Otto Reich was the first to inform diplomats in Washington that the Bush administration was backing the right wing coup that removed Chavez briefly in April, 2002. Noriega co-authored the anti-Cuban Helms-Burton Law of 1996.

Capriles' own attitude toward Cuba was on display during the brief 2002 coup when he and others forcibly entered the Cuban Embassy. That escapade led to a brief imprisonment in 2004, an occasion, he says, for meditation and strengthening of his religion.

From Miami, Capriles went to New York in order, said Maduro, to confer with supporters, among them Under Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson. Capriles' U.S. contacts are "the central nucleus of the whole campaign against Venezuela. With imperialists' dollars, they finance groups here in Venezuela that have tried to destabilize us for a long time." Maduro claimed Capriles owned a $5 million apartment in New York.

The New York Times, however, challenged Maduro's version of the ownership and price of the apartment. Its reporter heard from Under Secretary of States Jacobson who said she wouldn't be meeting with Capriles.

Capriles shot back at Maduro via Twitter: "Nicolas, what pains you most is that you and your kind travel around on Venezuelans' money [while] my trip is paid through my own resources. I come to the United States to visit my nephews. You traitors go to Cuba to get orders from the Castro brothers and hand over money from Venezuelans!"

The Hinterlaces polling organization recently released survey data showing that only 29 percent of Venezuelans support opposition forces headed by Capriles. Interviewed, on José Vicente Rangel's Sunday talk show on March 3, Oscar Schemel, the survey group's head said low ratings were "because their talk and interpretation are based on hate." He indicated that some Chavez enemies resent the "authoritarian and sectarian behaviors of these sectors of the opposition."

Vice President Maduro told government ministers, army commanders, and 20 socialist governors attending a meeting just hours before Chavez' death that "right wing imperial forces" are making plans for "thorough-going destabilization of Venezuela and for striking at the essence of the workings of democracy and the political system." Foreign Minister Elías Jaua announced expulsion from Venezuela of two U.S. Air Force attaches for "participating in illegal acts that promote destabilization."

Photo: Vice president Nicolas Maduro is the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's candidate running to replace Hugo Chavez. He is seen here with Diosdado Cabello, president of Venezuela's National Assembly. Ariana Cubillos/AP

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