Venezuela’s opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski announced on Sunday that he will stand in next month’s presidential election to succeed Hugo Chávez who died of cancer last week.
“I am going to fight,” Capriles told a news conference. “Nicolás, I am not going to give you a free pass. You will have to beat me with votes.”
Nicolás Maduro, the former vice president, will represent Chávez’ socialist party in the election. Preelection polls suggest that he will win comfortably.
Shortly before his last trip to Cuba where Chávez underwent cancer treatment, the former president anointed Maduro his successor. “My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon — irrevocable, absolute, total — is that you elect Nicolás Maduro as president,” he said in December. “He is one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue if I cannot.”
Maduro is believed to enjoy Cuba’s backing which is Venezuela’s most important ally in the region. The communist regime there depends on cheap Venezuelan oil and investments to keep its economy afloat. In 2011, Venezuela accounted for $8.3 billion of Cuba’s $20 billion in foreign trade.
If he wins the election, Maduro is unlikely to push for significant changes in economic and foreign policy. Like Chávez, he has been fiercely critical of the United States which just a day before his mentor’s death, he accused of poisoning the president.
Capriles, who is governor of the northern state of Miranda, proposes economic and social reforms modeled on those of Brazil’s Lula da Silva, the former socialist president who embraced international trade and investment while spending generously on education and welfare.
Previous attempts to oust the socialists failed when Venezuela’s opposition collapsed. For the first time since Chávez assumed power in 1999, opposition parties lined up behind a single presidential candidate last year. Capriles won 44 percent of the votes at the time.
While rich in natural resources, Venezuela has had to cope with energy and food shortages. It is the world’s tenth largest oil exporter but a net importer of refined products owing to an underdeveloped hydrocarbon industry. Venezuela’s economic growth rate is the lowest in Latin America while inflation has averaged 23 percent per year since 2001. Transparency International ranks the country among the ten most corrupt in the world.
Chávez’ populist left-wing policies eroded Venezuelan competitiveness. He stripped private companies of their assets and property rights and imposed price and foreign exchange controls in an attempt to alleviate food shortages and stem inflation. He also spent lavishly on education, housing and welfare programs which sustained his popularity among the nation’s poor who rejected Capriles’ call for reform last year.