* Opposition candidate seeks to minimize scandal
* Capriles mocks Chavez's election manifesto
* Political passions grow ahead of Oct. 7 vote
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Sept 14 Venezuela's opposition
challenger Henrique Capriles sought to deflect attention from a
corruption row by throwing the accusation back at President Hugo
Chavez on Friday in an escalating political brawl ahead of the
Oct. 7 vote.
Already in an uphill fight to end Chavez's 14-year socialist
rule of the South American OPEC member, Capriles' camp suffered
a setback on Thursday when government lawmakers released a video
of an aide taking cash in dubious circumstances.
Capriles immediately fired the aide, Juan Carlos Caldera,
and tried to turn the incident in his favor by saying that he -
unlike Chavez - would not tolerate any whiff of misconduct
within his team.
"If this government and its candidate took on corruption,
they'd have no ministers left," Capriles told a rally.
Transparency International ranks Venezuela as the
second-most corrupt nation in the Americas, after Haiti.
Opposition critics revel in tales of Chavez allies who in a
matter of years have moved from slums to plush homes and bought
yachts and luxury cars.
Government officials constantly try to link Capriles with
the pre-Chavez era during which politicians for decades pocketed
oil revenues while poverty deepened.
At a rally in western Lara state, Capriles mocked Chavez for
the lofty contents of his election manifesto. Its goals include
deepening socialism, striving for a "new international
geopolitical" dynamic, and helping to "save" mankind.
"They want to save the human race ... (but) where do they
propose the solution to the problems you are living with every
day? They don't mention them because this government is worn
out," Capriles said, holding a copy of Chavez's manifesto.
"Where's the solution to the electricity problem? Where's
the solution to the water problem, the public services?" he
asked, referring to power cuts and other day-to-day problems.
Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who says Brazil's mix
of capitalism and strong social welfare programs is his economic
model, seeks to project an image of youth, energy and attention
to grassroots problems.
He wants to end Chavez's statist economics - especially the
nationalization program - and his alliances with anti-U.S.
governments like Syria, Iran, Belarus and Cuba.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER OCT. 7?
Chavez, 58, who has outwitted the opposition time and time
again since taking power in 1999, is promising Venezuela's 29
million voters to extend his socialist crusade, spread oil
wealth and overturn historic injustices.
Most of the best-known pollsters put Chavez ahead by 10
points or more. But opinion polls are notoriously controversial
and divergent in Venezuela.
Capriles' numbers have crept up in recent weeks. One major
pollster on Friday put him just ahead of Chavez, 48.1 percent to
46.2 percent - effectively neck-and-neck given the margin of
If Chavez wins easily, he would have carte blanche to
continue his socialist experiment, perhaps seeking to extend the
state's grip on those areas of the economy - such as banking -
still left largely in private hands.
A close result could result in protests and fraud claims
from either side, leading to possible unrest in a polarized
nation full of guns.
The government hopes the video of Capriles aide and
opposition legislator Caldera, which shows him taking money in
return for promising access to Capriles, will tarnish the
But Caldera has said Capriles had nothing to do with it and
that the money - about $9,300 from a businessman - was a
legitimate contribution to his mayoral campaign.
"The government is doing this to try and put the brakes on
something that is unstoppable," he told a television station.
"They are trying to stop this with mud and dirty tactics."
While Capriles often refers to Chavez simply as "the
candidate of the government" or occasionally "the candidate of
the past," the president lets rip daily at his rival. He called
him a "jalabolas" - a sycophant - over and over again in one
Both sides have leaked documents that are purported to come
from each others' camps in recent days.
The government has displayed a supposed secret "neoliberal"
economic package planned by Capriles, while opposition activists
have circulated what they say is an internal campaign document
from the Chavez camp with instructions on how to sully the
opposition and exalt the president.