As the Venezuelan presidential election takes place today, the current incumbent, Hugo Chavez – also known as El Comandante – has never looked so vulnerable.
There are, broadly speaking, three reasons for this. Firstly, Chavez is widely believed to be suffering from advanced stage cancer, and some regime watchers think he may not live more than a year. Secondly, Chavez's policy of lavishing the country's petroleum revenues on public works programs that secure him the votes of poorer Venezuelans, along with his insistence on supplying allies like Cuba and Belarus with heavily subsidized oil, is no longer fiscally tenable. Lastly, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, has electrified much of the electorate at a series of public rallies over the past few weeks, to the extent that some opinion polls now show him edging in front of Chavez.
At the same time, the opposition knows that Chavez is perfectly willing to resort to strong-arm tactics if needed. Memories of the violent 2007 protests against Chavez's attempt to abolish presidential term limits are still fresh. By the same token, no-one has forgotten the street clashes of 2009, when Chavez finally forced through constitutional reforms that could theoretically allow him to remain president for life.
Yet, for the first time in three years, Venezuelans can again seriously entertain the notion of a future without Chavez. The present state of the country is appalling: homicide rates, at 69 per 100,000 heads of the population, are among the highest in the world, thanks in large part to Chavez's fostering of a gangster element whose ultimate loyalty is to him. Venezuela's currency, the Bolivar, has seen 55 per cent wiped off its value over the last year, while incomes have crashed and inflation has spiraled. The state-owned oil industry, which accounts for 95 per cent of the country's export earnings, looks less like the motor of a robust socialist economy and far more like an experiment in social ownership gone pitifully wrong. The explosion at the Amuay oil refinery last August, in which more than 40 people were killed, quickly became a symbol of the country's general misfortune.
Chavez's strategy in dealing with the Capriles campaign has avoided actual policy debate. He has focused instead on demonizing his opponent as, variously, an "imperialist," a "capitalist," a "little bourgeois," and - inevitably, given Capriles' Jewish origins and Chavez's historic willingness to deploy anti-Semitism for political purposes - a "Zionist."
These attacks have highlighted the vulnerability of the Venezuelan Jewish community, whose numbers have declined from 30,000 - before Chavez came to power - to just 9,000 now. As a September study by Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism noted, "recent years have witnessed a rise in anti-Semitic manifestations, including vandalism, media attacks, caricatures, and physical attacks on Venezuelan Jewish institutions."
Who, in fact, is Henrique Capriles? At just 40 years old, there is something of the boy wonder about him. Blocked by Chavez from meaningful access to the media, Capriles has earned the nickname "Road Runner" because of his frenetic road trips around the country, in which he typically walks or runs for miles while pressing the flesh. More importantly, he has already chalked up a record of success as governor of Miranda state in the north of the country, having instituted wide-ranging educational reforms that resulted in local schools outperforming schools elsewhere in Venezuela.
In essence, the difference between the two candidates comes down to this: where Chavez talks endlessly about ideology, Capriles talks about policy. A center-left politician whose principal inspiration is the Brazilian model, in which a market-oriented economic policy is blended with strong welfare commitments, Capriles has persuaded a huge swathe of Venezuelans that schools, roads, jobs and hospitals are the issues of the hour, in marked contrast to Chavez's bombast about socialism and revolution. A decade ago, Chavez might have gotten away with poking fun at Capriles' comparatively privileged background his family owns the local subsidiary of food giant Nabisco, along with the country's biggest chain of movie theaters but in these much leaner times, such antics are falling flat.
Indeed, one might even say that Capriles' Jewish background he is a devout Catholic, yet has always spoken warmly of his Jewish side - has been of help in establishing his credentials. His maternal grandparents, the Radonskis, survived the Holocaust in Poland and traveled to Venezuela, as Capriles describes it, "with just a suitcase full of clothes." That aspect of his biography has favorably impacted Venezuelans, whose traditional distaste for anti-Semitism has not wavered despite Chavez's best efforts (to give one example, a headline earlier this year in a pro-Chavez weekly declared, "We Are F--ked if the Jews Come to Power".)
In terms of foreign policy, a Capriles government is likely to cautiously, if steadily, dismantle the alliances which Chavez has assiduously cultivated with rogue regimes, most notoriously Iran and Syria. Moreover, Capriles's emphasis on fixing the country's myriad economic and social problems will probably involve a long period of disinterest in international affairs, save for mending relations with immediate neighbors like Colombia, and developing better trade links with the rest of Latin America.
Whatever the immediate outcome on Sunday, Capriles will have made a lasting impact on Venezuelan politics. True, Chavez could win a marginal victory, but anything with the appearance of a landslide will quickly draw angry accusations of foul play. Chavez could also, in the manner of his close friend, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, steal the election outright, although it is not clear whether Venezuela's armed forces would back such a move. Finally, the last few months of campaigning may turn out to have been a dress rehearsal; should Chavez pass away and his regime be plunged into internecine rivalry, Henrique Capriles could find that his moment has suddenly arrived.