Juan Carlos Caldera isn’t the sharpest knife in Venezuela’s political drawer. Last week, the campaign of President Hugo Chávez, who is battling opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the Oct. 7 presidential election, released a video of Caldera, a top Capriles aide, taking $9,300 in cash from the agent of a wealthy businessman. Caldera, a National Assembly deputy, says he was merely receiving a contribution for his own mayoral campaign; Chávez’s camp claims the money was a bribe. Either way, in Venezuela, where political corruption is as vast and sludgy as the nation’s heavy oil reserves, it’s fairly stupid for a reform candidate’s lieutenant to be seen pocketing an envelope stuffed with bolivares.
Especially toward the end of a tightening presidential race. Capriles fired Caldera from his campaign as soon the video went public. But given the incumbent’s enormous financial and media advantages — Chávez, a firebrand socialist who has led the oil-rich South American country since 1999, has the western hemisphere’s most prodigious petrorevenue at his disposal as well as a multitentacled state-run press and broadcasting machine — Capriles has little if any room for error. As a result, especially with polls showing that almost a third of Venezuelans are still undecided, the Caldera video has the potential of turning off just enough voters to sink Capriles’ bid.
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Or maybe not. So far, Caldera-gate has turned out to be a dud of a scandal for Chávez. It certainly hasn’t generated the public outrage that seemed sure to crash down on Capriles last week. And that says a lot about why Capriles from the outset has had, and may well still have, a shot at unseating the 21st century’s Fidel Castro wannabe.
Reason número uno: Chávez’s left-wing Bolivarian Revolution has squandered its moral authority when it comes to corruption. That’s all the more ironic, and hypocritical, given that Chávez was first elected in 1998 — and had led a failed military coup in 1992 — because decades of epic oil-wealth embezzlement by Venezuela’s elite had left more than half the population in poverty. In a Caracas press conference last week, Chávez rightly reiterated that his rise to power was simply a result of what he called Venezuela’s 20th century “swamp.” Caldera, 38, started his political career in that putrid pre-Chávez mire, and his videotaped lapse is a reminder of how easy it is for the Chávistas to suggest that the opposition still hasn’t fully scraped that era off the soles of its shoes.
But with oil prices reaching record levels over the past decade, the Chávistas themselves, especially the affluent “revolutionaries” known as the Bolibourgeoisie and the moguls called Boligarchs, haven’t exactly demonstrated a Marxist resistance to dubious wealth. Even midlevel government officials flaunt it as they step out of luxury cars at expensive bistros in trendy Caracas districts like Altamira and Las Mercedes. Chávez has ordered some arrests on corruption charges, but critics note that his relatives have turned his home state of Barinas and its government into a family fief. The U.S. has accused Venezuela’s Defense Minister, General Henry Rangel Silva, of aiding drug traffickers. And the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International ranks Venezuela No. 172 out of 183 nations on its corruption index.
The average Venezuelan is more than aware of the Chávista abuses. Last week I visited Caracas’ expansive Catia slum, which was once the cradle of Chávez’s support but could go for Capriles next month because of cripplingly high murder and inflation rates. Despite new health clinics and other benefits Chávez has brought there, disillusionment with la revolución was palpable. Catia resident Beatriz Castro told me she’s been waiting a decade for Chávez officials to build promised dikes and drainage gutters to keep poor hillside neighborhoods like hers from being washed away during heavy rains. “They wear red and talk about defending us against imperialism,” she said sarcastically, “and they walk around with Rolexes on their wrists.”
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Voters like Castro also realize that the smart, centrist campaign run so far by the 40-year-old Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, outside Caracas, has shaken the air of invincibility that once surrounded Chávez, who is battling cancer and has not been able to campaign as energetically. Although Chávez insisted this month that a Capriles victory is “impossible,” recent incidents like a major Caracas bridge collapse and a refinery explosion that killed 42 people have tarnished his government’s image. Some of his panicked supporters — like those who threw rocks at Capriles backers and torched a Capriles campaign vehicle at a rally in Puerto Cabello last week — have resorted to thuggish tactics. So while many voters may be repulsed by the Caldera video, just as many are likely to dismiss it as a desperate, amateurish setup by the Chávez campaign — especially since the businessman whose cash was handed over, shipping baron Wilmer Ruperti, is a well-known Chávez buddy.
The Caldera video could even backfire on Chávez by reminding voters that corruption is in fact more of an Achilles’ heel for the President than for his opponent. Capriles, in fact, blunted the video’s damage by moving quickly to boot Caldera, something Venezuelans aren’t used to seeing from their politicians, who usually make excuses for malfeasance. “I won’t permit anyone [under me] to enjoy privileges for personal gain,” he told reporters last Friday.
Still, with even the most favorable polls showing him only in a tie with Chávez, Capriles is likely to face a cost from the Caldera screwup. The good news for Capriles is that, thanks to Chávez and the Bolibourgeoisie, the tab won’t be nearly as expensive as it could have been.
— With reporting by Girish Gupta / Caracas