Fresh from a sweeping victory in the Venezuelan opposition’s joint primary, Henrique Capriles declared Monday that the larger-than-expected voter turnout underscored the country’s hunger for peace and progress, its “exhaustion” with President Hugo Chavez’s divisive oratory and the vulnerability of the longtime socialist incumbent.
Capriles, the 39-year-old governor of Miranda state, said at a news conference that he would run as an experienced pragmatist who will promote investment to reactivate a severely weakened economy. To calm some Chavistas’ fears, he said he would leave intact the president’s wide-ranging welfare programs known as “missions,” which funnel cash to a quarter of the adult population.
“I’m not going to take anything from anyone,” Capriles said, adding that he would not fire workers at bloated government entities such as PDVSA, the state-run oil company whose payroll is padded with Chavez supporters.
“I will be elected president not to fight with anyone, or make promises I can’t keep, but to solve problems,” he said.
Capriles also addressed a sore point among many voters by criticizing the estimated $70 billion he said Chavez had given away in foreign aid, including 98,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba.
“I’m not going to use oil so that people in the Caribbean speak highly of me,” Capriles said. Chavez’s expropriations of farmland, businesses and residential buildings have been a “total disaster,” he said.
Capriles won 62% of the nearly 3 million votes cast in the nation’s first nationwide primary since 1993, earning the right to face Chavez in the Oct. 7 general election. Second-place finisher Pablo Perez garnered 30%, far more than most analysts expected. About 17% of eligible Venezuelans cast ballots.
Analysts had thought the opposition would be lucky to draw about 2 million voters to the contest. The five candidates had agreed to a joint primary, with all backing the eventual winner for the campaign against Chavez.
Capriles is a political prodigy and tireless campaigner with a long record in elective office. In 1999, at age 26, he was elected president of the National Assembly. A year later he won the mayorship of Baruta, one of largest boroughs in Caracas, the capital. In 2008, he won the Miranda governorship by thumping Diosdado Cabello, a Chavez confidant and current National Assembly president.
Capriles also spent four months in jail for his alleged role in the abortive April 2002 coup against Chavez, specifically for leading a seizure of the Cuban Embassy in Caracas. He was ultimately cleared of all charges but nonetheless has been fiercely criticized by Chavez on numerous occasions as a “mutineer.”
Capriles’ maternal grandparents were Polish and Russian Jews who emigrated to Venezuela following World War II after surviving the Holocaust, avoiding capture by the Nazis in Warsaw.
Despite obstacles thrown in his path by Chavez, including the disarming of the Miranda state police force, Capriles has proved a highly popular governor, with his reconstruction of 400 schools, a free food program called Zero Hunger, and a housing program that has given shelter to 120,000 state residents.
“I started my  campaign handing out handbills with my plans for Miranda. My opponent came giving away refrigerators and appliances,” Capriles told reporters. “I beat him by 20 points.”
Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.