Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski vowed to end cheap oil transfers to nearby Cuba in a speech on Monday and slammed his opponent, former vice president Nicolás Maduro, as a puppet of the communist regime there. Yet the ruling party’s candidate looks almost certain to win next month’s election.
“The giveaways to other countries are going to end,” said Capriles in the northwestern state of Zulia, one of the Latin American country’s largest oil-producing provinces. “Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros,” referring to the island nation’s past and present leaders, Fidel and his brother Raúl Castro.
“Nicolas is the candidate of Raúl Castro,” said Capriles. “I’m the candidate of the Venezuelan people.”
Cuba would probably indeed rather Maduro won the election who is unlikely to halt the daily transfer of nearly 100,000 barrels of oil from Venezuela in exchange for medical services and intelligence support from the Caribbean nation. Venezuela became Cuba’s main ally in the region during the fourteen year presidency of Hugo Chávez who died earlier this month of cancer. His death triggered a presidential election scheduled for April 14.
A victory for Capriles, on the other hand, could herald the liberalization of Venezuela’s oil industry which Chávez nationalized. A suspension of the oil trade with Cuba would free up resources to increase public-sector salaries, he said, to compensate for inflation which is among the highest in the region.
“Every day it’s harder to find food and every day food is more expensive,” said Capriles. “This model is not viable.”
Inflation has averaged 23 percent since 2001. While rich in natural resources, Venezuela has had to cope with energy and food shortages in the latter years of Chávez’ presidency. It is the world’s tenth largest oil exporter but a net importer of refined products due to lack of hydrocarbon industry development since the sector was nationalized.
Yet the country’s acting president and Chávez’ heir, Maduro, commanded a 14 percentage point lead over Capriles in a Datanalisis poll cited on Monday. It showed the ruling party’s candidate would win 49.2 percent of the votes compared to 34.8 percent for Capriles, currently the governor of the northern state of Miranda.
The liberal candidate, who Maduro said this weekend does not care “about people’s lives” in the slums of Venezuela’s cities but enjoys strong support from the middle class, faces a delicate balancing act between highlighting the flaws of Chávez’ socialist regime without attacking the deceased former leader, whom he failed to defeat in an election last year, personally.