Interim president Nicolas Maduro, the 50-year-old former vice president, foreign minister and close confidante of the ailing Chavez – named in his last public address last December as his political successor – formally lodged his candidacy for the April 14 special election with the National Electoral Council.
Maduro, who then addressed supporters at a Caracas plaza and described himself as Chavez’ “son,” will represent the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the leftist governing party established by Chavez in 2007.
The challenge will come from Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 40-year-old state governor from the center-right Primero Justicia (Justice First) party, following a decision by the opposition coalition to throw its weight behind a single candidate.
In a conciliatory statement on Sunday, Capriles again expressed condolences to Chavez’ family and supporters, called on all Venezuelans to rise to the occasion at “a difficult time,” and urged them, “let’s move on.”
On Monday, however, he threw himself into the fray, accusing Maduro of misleading the Venezuelan people about the state of Chavez’ health even as he prepared for his own election campaign.
Chavez loyalists responded furiously, with the speaker of Congress, Diosdado Cabello of the PSUV, using his Twitter account to accuse Capriles of violating Chavez’ memory and calling his statements a “declaration of war.”
Maduro himself accused the opposition candidate of trying to stoke violence by inciting Chavez’ supporters.
“He wants the Venezuelan people, in the pursuit of justice for their Commander Chavez, to act outside the channels and take the path of violence,” he said in a statement. “He is looking for violence to kick away the Venezuelan political table and then discredit the electoral process, so as justify their retirement from the campaign due to the violence he has caused himself.”
And reprising a familiar Chavista theme, Maduro also hinted that a foreign hand was behind the opposition campaign, charging that Capriles was “part of an economic group with international support aimed at destabilizing the country.”
Although evidently a campaign statement, Maduro’s comments were published on the websites of the presidency and Agencia Venezolana de Noticias (AVN), the official state news agency – the equivalent of an American president using the White House website to promote his re-election campaign. In previous Venezuelan elections, the incumbent was accused of misusing state institutions for campaign purposes.
AVN also ran a report headlined, “Maduro holds high advantage for April presidential election,” citing the views of GIS XXI, a Venezuelan polling firm run by Chavez’ former justice minister.
Capriles was the opposition candidate in last October’s presidential election, which Chavez won by 11 percentage points, a sizeable margin, but still significantly smaller than in his previous victories in 2006 and 1998.
Cuba, whose communist government was among Chavez’ closest allies, has much at stake in next month’s election, having long benefitted from subsidized oil imports from energy-rich Venezuela.
After returning from Chavez’ state funeral, Cuban President Raul Castro told Cuban media on Monday that he was confident Maduro would succeed in taking forward his predecessor’s “great work.”
Cuban state media published an article by former President Fidel Castro, entitled “We lost our best friend” Cubans were honored to have shared with Chavez “the same ideals of social justice and the support of the exploited ones,” he wrote.