LOS TEQUES, Venezuela — As someone who has spent his entire political career opposing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski is accustomed to rough handling.
But even he was taken aback by the viciousness that erupted two years ago outside the yellow walls of the old colonial home that now serves as his government seat.
“They came here and they called me Nazi, when my grandmother was in the Warsaw Ghetto,” he said, his voice rising. “My great-grandparents were killed in a concentration camp. My grandmother’s mother and father were killed by the Nazis in Treblinka.”
By “they” he means the red-clad mob, led by the city’s pro-Chavez mayor, who chanted “Nazi fascist!” and sprayed red swastikas onto the outer walls of the Casa Amarilla (Yellow House) in 2009.
Since taking office three years ago as the governor of Venezuela’s second-largest state, Miranda, Capriles has become a lightning rod for anti-Semitic attacks from the state’s most radical corners even though he says he is a fervent Catholic and subject to what he describes as a campaign of “permanent sabotage” by the government.
Capriles, 38, last month declared his intention to seek the nomination to run as the opposition candidate against Chavez, who will be running for his third consecutive term.
Recent surveys show that the lanky Capriles, a grandson of Holocaust survivors who does not identify himself as a Jew, is the most popular politician in Venezuela.
Sensing its best opportunity to defeat Chavez as the nation struggles with rampant crime, double-digit inflation and deteriorating services, the opposition for the first time has agreed to unite behind a single candidate chosen in a primary scheduled for February.
This makes Capriles the opposition’s most credible chance of defeating Chavez since he assumed power 13 years ago.
“He represents the next generation of Venezuelan political leaders,” Ricardo Hausmann, director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development and a former Venezuelan minister of planning, said of Capriles. “He honed his political skills during very conflicted times and has been able to garner support from a very heterogeneous voting bloc.”
Capriles is used to confronting the government. He was imprisoned in 2004 for 120 days for charges related to his activities as mayor of a middle-class district of Caracas during the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. After several trials he was exonerated, allowing him to move on from mayor to governor.
In 2008 he defeated a powerful Chavez ally to lead Miranda, which has nearly 3 million people. His victory unnerved the government by finding thousands of new votes in the overcrowded slums surrounding Caracas, which traditionally voted with Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV. Incensed at the loss of such a key state, Chavez immediately ordered the central government to take over Miranda’s hospitals.
By presidential decree, Chavez dismantled the state’s infrastructure, taking over police units, asphalt plants and state employees, slashing budgets and crippling the governor’s ability to effectively administer power.
To many it looked like revenge, an attempt to paralyze a potentially dangerous political foe. However, the effort seems to have backfired: Some polls are showing that as many as three out of four voters are blaming the Chavez government and not Capriles for reduced services.
Capriles notes that while he believes he was targeted by the Chavez government, all of Venezuela’s states, regardless of their political affiliation, have had their powers diminished by the central government.
“Chavez has won through elections, but his daily maneuvering isn’t democratic,” Capriles told JTA. “The challenge is to democratically overcome a government that isn’t democratic.”
Chavez does not usually refer to his opponents individually but has begun telling the nation it must be vigilant against political elements “looking to set the nation on fire.”
Shortly after Capriles announced his intention to run, Chavez warned that the opposition was planning to destabilize the nation. Such remarks harked back to 2002, when the opposition tried to overthrow his presidency and carried out a devastating strike in the national oil industry.
In an interview with a local private station, Chavez said he was sure he would win.
“If they don’t kill me or some other catastrophe doesn’t occur, I’m certain – though there will be much work to do – that I will be re-elected for six more years,” Chavez said earlier this year.
While Chavez’s approval rating has dropped from its peak level of about 80 percent, he still commands the support of about half the electorate. The half that is against Chavez is fractured among the opposition candidates.
Chavez has benefited as well from more than a decade of political organization at the grass-roots level, and he remains popular among many members of Venezuela’s underclasses.
Capriles argues that he can more effectively bring about the social improvements Chavez has promised. Acknowledging that Chavez has brought attention to the vast inequalities that separate Venezuela’s rich and poor, Capriles says Chavez is too ideologically driven to successfully manage the nation.
Capriles’ non-ideological focus on improving lives has found a receptive audience among many who have grown tired of Chavez’s tirades and a seemingly growing list of unfulfilled promises.
In the last few weeks, rolling power outages again have struck the nation, resulting in citywide rationing in Caracas and beyond. In 2009, Chavez claimed the blackouts were due to a drought that severely curtailed the nation’s hydroelectric capabilities. This year, the blackouts are occurring after months of unusually heavy rains have displaced thousands of people throughout the country.
“[Chavez] has in his hands all the tools to make this country function, and if he did so everyone would support him,” said Josefina Arias, 36, a vendor who described herself as a former Chavez supporter.
Arias had gathered with several hundred other people at Casa Amarilla to receive state-funded vouchers worth about $3,000 to repair her rain-damaged cinderblock home.
“There are many people who want this country to change,” Arias said. “Unfortunately, I believe that Chavez has lost his vision of what Venezuela could be.”
While voicing her own disenchantment with Chavez, Arias noted that many in her family still support the president. They fear that if the opposition wins, Chavez’s social programs, like providing subsidized groceries or free clinics, may be reversed.
Many expect an ugly electoral fight ahead, warning that Chavez is unafraid to use the full force of the state’s considerable media and financial resources against his enemies.
“Chavez, of course, has every interest in sowing conflict among the opposition, and he will have considerable resources to do so,” said John Carey, a political scientist at Dartmouth College.
For Jews, this could mean the resurgence of anti-Semitism that many hoped had been put to rest through recent overtures made by the president toward the community.
Despite the fact that he says he’s Catholic, Capriles consistently has been the target of anti-Semitic attacks. During the governor’s race in 2008, state media described him as a member of the “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie” and “genetically fascist.”
Though the campaign hasn’t officially begun, the state press continues to refer to Capriles as Jewish. Observers say that may be an attempt to generate opposition against him.
“We have already begun to see a species of feint referring to him as Jewish, which we believe is an attempt to carve out the votes of anti-Semites and especially anti-Israel [voters],” said a Jewish representative who asked to not be identified. “The campaign hasn’t even begun yet, but we’re sure there will be [anti-Semitic] attacks.”
Local Venezuelan Jews say Capriles has “very good relations” with the community, even though he doesn’t identify spiritually with it.
“Because of my mother and grandmother, for Jews I’m Jewish, but I’m Catholic,” Capriles said.
Describing himself as a fervent Catholic, Capriles said he adopted religion in prison, becoming a “strong believer in the Virgin Mary.”
“When you’re in jail, if you attain a spiritual connection, that connection is then very strong,” he said.
While he no longer has a religious connection to the Jewish community, their story of survival affects him deeply, he says.
Responding to whether he believes he will be singled out for personal attacks in the upcoming campaign, he says it doesn’t matter.
“I have the blood of struggle running through my veins,” said Capriles. “My grandparents arrived in Venezuela with just a suitcase full of clothes, fleeing Nazi persecution.”
While he expects an exhausting fight, Capriles says he is ready for whatever lays ahead as he seeks to win the opposition’s endorsement and defeat Chavez.
“I’m not here to be a candidate,” he said. “We are in this competition to win.”