Hugo Chavez died on March 5, just a few months into his fourth term as Venezeula's president, triggering a new round of elections scheduled for this Saturday. Chavez's (and Cuba's) hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, faces Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in last year's election by an 11 point margin. That was the closest of Chavez's four electoral victories. While Maduro remains well ahead in the polls, Capriles, perhaps unsurprisingly, says he's going to win. At Caracas Chronicles, Emiliana Duarte, who the blog notes has taken a leave to volunteer for the Capriles campaign, explains how the political atmosphere in Venezuela is changing:
First and foremost, Chávez is no longer (physically) present. Second, the oppositions' tone has taken a marked turn for full-frontal, unabashed attacks on the personal and administrative fronts of the incumbent. Third, and consequently, the government's candidate is himself a target for attacks, something we haven't seen in a while.
…The fact of the matter is, a new breeze is flowing through Venezuela with regards to outward expressions of support or dissent; expressions that might seem trivial at first glance, but that taken in context reveal great significance.
Gone are the days, for example, when the MUD [Capriles' electoral coalition] stifled its criticism of shady CNE [national elections commission] goings-on for fear that public outcries of foul play could dissuade voters from turning out on election day…
Vanished, also, are the feeble, impersonal reproaches that have in the past characterized Capriles' discrepancies with the status quo. Capriles has done a complete 180-in-message. One that took us from "The President did some things well, but I will make them better," to "Nicolás is inept, corrupt, deceiving, and driving our county to ruin." (I paraphrase)
If that wasn't enough change, there's also the unprecedented ease with which the opposition now publicly ridicules the government candidate. This new license to mock renders anything fair game: Maduro's companion Cilia Flores, the President-in-Charge's paranormal conversations with fowl-from yonder, not-so-subtle allusions to his weight and his work ethic (I'm not an objective observer, but, damn, the guy kind of makes it hard to inspire respect).
Though taken at face value, these attacks are certainly puerile, frivolous, and thus speak to the low depths to which political discourses sometimes fall to, they represent a welcome, even refreshing, change in free-speech dynamics.
Some background on Maduro's conversation with a bird: he said Chavez came to him in the form of one to bless his campaign. Maduro previously likened his opponents to contemporary Hitlers and just this week said he put a hex on any Venezuelan who didn't vote for him. You know what they say, if you don't have a record to run on, you make a big election about small things.