Chavez’s Foes Cancel Primary, Line Up Behind One Candidate

Times Staff Writer

Eight candidates opposing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called off a primary election set for Sunday, saying that they had unanimously agreed to support the front-runner and bestfinanced among them, Gov. Manuel Rosales.

The announcement is seen as yielding to the financial and political costs of holding a primary and to the reality that Rosales stands the best chance against Chavez in the Dec. 3 presidential race. Rosales, the governor of Zulia state, and seven other politicians had planned to participate in a winner-take-all primary to choose a single candidate whom they all would support.

The presidential campaign kicks off this week, and Chavez is expected to file for reelection Saturday. The former army paratrooper, who took power in 1999 and has survived a coup attempt, a crippling general strike and a recall election, is the heavy favorite to win another term.


In one recent poll, 9% of respondents said they would vote for Rosales, while 56% said they would cast a ballot for Chavez.

Chavez, a harsh critic of U.S. policy and President Bush, has built a strong following among the poor because of his use of the nation’s oil wealth to promote health, education, housing and discount food programs.

Rosales, 53, acknowledged in television and radio interviews Wednesday that he faced un uphill battle and that “time is short.” But in a speech to supporters, he hammered away at what some analysts say are Chavez’s vulnerabilities: massive foreign aid programs, government-approved takeovers of land and buildings, and the perception that crime is increasing.

“The government wants to be the owner of all private property,” Rosales said. “We will distribute land to the peasants, but we will buy it in such a way as to respect the principle of private property, just as we will respect those of human rights and social justice.”

A Chavez official who asked not to be identified noted that Rosales had recognized the importance of including land reform in his campaign, calling it an admission that Chavez had scored important points with his redistribution policies.

Rosales’ supporters were relieved this week when the National Election Council ruled that the governor would not have to resign to run for president, which some analysts said the law required. But the council refused to set campaign spending limits, which is seen as an advantage for Chavez.

Rosales, a father of eight, has a high school education. He is a career politician who has solid support in Zulia, a prosperous oil and cattle state. His fiery anti-Chavez oratory and his visibility and financial resources as governor propelled him to the top of the list of challengers.

A spokeswoman for Julio Borges, a lawyer and TV talk-show host with the best poll numbers after Rosales, said Wednesday that Borges would be Rosales’ running mate.

“Just as the rest of the candidates do, Julio supports 100% the naming of Rosales,” the spokeswoman said.

Another well-known Chavez challenger, Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla and planning minister who is editor of the newspaper Tal Cual, withdrew from the race last week.

Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based analyst and pollster, said it made sense for the opposition to save money and avoid primary-induced divisiveness before the general election, when it would need a united front if a Chavez opponent was to have any chance.

In a television interview, Rosales promised to devote one-fifth of oil revenue for housing and other benefits to the poor and the “impoverished middle class,” seen as an acknowledgment of Chavez’s political appeal.

But he promised to halt the Chavez policy of taking over private farmland and giving it to peasants, saying his government would buy land for redistribution and respect property rights.

The Chavez official countered that in all cases the government negotiated “compensation with private landowners for any idle land that is expropriated.”

Rosales said he would halt all oil giveaways to other countries, including sales of discounted oil to Cuba, until Venezuela reduced its high poverty rate. Through a program called Petrocaribe, Chavez sells oil at a discounted rate to 15 Caribbean nations.

Chavez is thought to have promised as much as $20 billion in giveaways to Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador and fuel oil customers in New England as part of his program to win influence abroad. His critics say Venezuela’s poverty and infrastructure should be addressed first.

In his speech to supporters, Rosales also focused on the country’s crime rate, seen as a weak spot for Chavez.

“Chavez said the people rule, when in fact it’s the thieves, drug traffickers, guerrillas and paramilitaries,” Rosales said.

The Chavez official, who said he could not be named because he was not authorized to speak about social policies, laughed off the accusations, which he called libelous.

“It just shows once more that freedom of speech is alive and well in Venezuela,” he said.

In other developments, the Chavez government announced that Nicolas Maduro, president of the National Assembly, would take over as foreign minister, replacing longtime Chavez confidant Ali Rodriguez, who was said to be in ill health.

Chavez recently has made three other Cabinet changes, including naming his brother Adan planning minister.