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Hugo Chavez's Legacy Looms Over Venezuelan Election


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep in Caracas, Venezuela. This country is about to hold a presidential election. Voters are replacing the late Hugo Chavez, who shouldered this oil-rich republic onto the world stage. He often denounced the United States as an oppressive empire - even as he sold Americans oil - and imported gasoline from U.S. refineries. The election of his successor this weekend gives us a chance to listen to a changing Latin America.


INSKEEP: Follow the sound of air horns - vuvuzelas - and you encounter thousands of people walking a major Caracas street. Some people stop in front of ear-splitting loudspeakers and dance.


INSKEEP: Hugo Chavez, a brilliant political performer, brought out huge crowds like this during 14 years in power. This substantial crowd is flowing toward a rally for the opposition presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles.

Why are you supporting Capriles?

YAMIR MARTINEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Yamir Martinez says: I want a better future for my children.

Chavez promoted his brand of socialism. He nationalized whole industries and drew money from the state oil company to help the poor. But now that his rule has ended, inflation is soaring, and people report shortages of basic goods, including food. That's why Martinez hopes to defeat Chavez's chosen successor on Sunday.

The opposition contender, Capriles, is a popular state governor who says he's more pragmatic and would support fewer leftist causes around the world.

What can he do to change the country?

MARTINEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: She says he can bring a different Venezuela, with less hatred.

We'll hear more about this socially and economically divided country in the coming days on MORNING EDITION, though just now it's getting hard to hear anything.

(Spanish spoken)

MARTINEZ: (Spanish spoken)


INSKEEP: The noise becomes impossible as the crowd flows through a concrete tunnel which acts like a giant amplifier.

The crowd emerges in front of a stage, filling block after block between high-rise buildings. They climb up onto the concrete floors of an unfinished building, and strain to hear the opposition candidate tell them they have the power to defeat the powerful.

Yet banners on the light poles show the broad smiling face of their former president, one of the most famous men in Latin America, who beat them in election after election and could do it one more time from the grave.

In this crowd we met with NPR's Juan Forero, who covered the late Hugo Chavez for years.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: As we've seen in the elections one after the other, the opposition has been able to grow, but still, in the last presidential election in October, Enrique Capriles lost against Hugo Chavez by almost 11 points, so the big question is: How many will they be able to bring out now? And, of course, Hugo Chavez died just a month ago, so the government has the sympathy vote here, so it's going to be very, very difficult for the opposition.

INSKEEP: This crowd - this opposition crowd - doesn't look noticeably upper class, but it certainly doesn't look poor, these people.

FORERO: Well, these people really are a mix. I think you are going to find a lot of poor people here, honestly I do, and I think you're going to find a lot of people who are working class. I was covering this many years ago, and a decade ago you would see huge crowds come out here for the opposition, but they were most definitely whiter, you know, people who clearly had more money, people who clearly were more middle class - even upper middle class. I think you still see those people here, but look at the people we are seeing here, a lot of brown faces, a lot of people who are working class.

INSKEEP: You just referred to people being whiter if they were upper class, brown faces if they're lower class. That suggests a racial divide in Venezuela and across Latin America.

FORERO: I think it's very Latin American. I think you are going to see in many of these countries, whether it's Colombia, Brazil, or Mexico, certainly. Venezuela has had a lot of presidents and you look at them, most of them are of European descent.

INSKEEP: Chavez was different - browner - and talked about it. His most vital support came from the neighborhoods that stretch up the mountainsides around Caracas - neighborhoods we can see from this center city in the valley; they're the kind of improvised settlements filled with poor people which are common all across Latin America.

We knew we'd lose Juan in this crowd, so we agreed to meet later, in one of the most important mountainside neighborhoods of all.

OK. So after a trip across town and uphill, we've arrived in this barrio, this poor neighborhood, on the hills overlooking Venezuela's presidential palace. It was a center of support for Hugo Chavez, and it's the neighborhood where he is now entombed, just beyond an eternal flame that I can see at the end of this street here. The neighborhood is called 23rd January. People in this area are known to be politically active and quite often armed. There's a shrine to Hugo Chavez on the street near here. He's pictured on the wall with Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. And inside that shrine, people light prayer candles. This week, a woman who tends the shrine scraped off the melted down wax.

EVA GARCIA: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Eva Garcia is a local government worker and also a volunteer of a local Chavez collective - a colectivo - partly a political group and partly a militia. She doesn't call Chavez a leader but a saint. Near the shrine we met up again with NPR's Juan Forero and looked across the neighborhood.

FORERO: Some of these big blocks were built decades ago.

INSKEEP: Oh, we're looking over here. This almost looks like Soviet-style public housing.

FORERO: Exactly. Right below the mountain, this is looking north in the direction of the United States, actually. But then up here on this hill you can see all these buildings, these houses that, the people who live in them, they built over the years.

INSKEEP: OK. So this is an area that supported President Hugo Chavez hugely that is now presumed to support Nicolas Maduro, his chosen replacement as president of Venezuela. Why would people continue supporting this party, this administration, given some of the problems that have come up in this country: mass inflation, mass economic trouble?

FORERO: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is Chavez told them support Nicolas Maduro. He said that December 8. That was his last speech. Everybody here remembers that. And then the other thing is that over the years there was an interest in this area by the government. So there are different kinds of programs - cultural programs, sports programs for kids. You can see that there have been some improvements. It's still a very difficult neighborhood. Violence is just horrific here - the high homicide rate and so forth. But people here also had this almost mystical connection with Chavez.

INSKEEP: NPR's Juan Forero. I'll let you get back to your reporting. Thanks very much.

FORERO: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

INSKEEP: We have much more on this revealing election which comes this weekend. Tomorrow morning we'll take a walk up the hillside deeper into this neighborhood where the polarizing figure of Hugo Chavez was loved. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Juan Forero