|The Wall Street Journal|
The Wall Street Journal
By Kejal Vyas and José de Córdoba
February 15, 2012
CARACAS—President Hugo Chávez's new opponent in the October presidential elections faced a hail of vicious attacks from state media Tuesday and a judicial challenge from the government-controlled Supreme Court.
Henrique Capriles, who on Sunday won an overwhelming victory in an opposition primary, was vilified in a campaign in Venezuela's state-run media, which insinuated he was, among other things, a homosexual and a Zionist agent. On Sunday, Mr. Capriles won more than 1.8 million votes out of more than three million votes cast, stunning the government, which had predicted a far smaller turnout.
"This is characteristic of this government," said Ramon José Medina, a coordinator for the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Panel, better known by its Spanish acronym MUD. "The government is in attack mode after seeing three million people vote in the primary."
The attacks appear to be the start of a scathing fight by the government against the opposition, which is mounting what analysts say is its most ambitious effort yet to unseat the charismatic and authoritarian leader after 13 years in power.
Although Mr. Chávez is still popular with many poor Venezuelans, the country is afflicted with the world's highest inflation rate, suffers from a wave of violence, shortages of basic foods and frequent power blackouts.
Still, Mr. Chávez dominates the nation's mass media, and has been spending lavishly on social programs to sway Venezuelan voters.
Aside from personal attacks, Venezuela's Supreme Court ordered the opposition electoral board, which organized the primary, not to destroy the ballots as the parties agreed to do in November to assure voters they wouldn't suffer any state retaliation.
Opposition deputy Omar Barboza, the campaign manager of Mr. Capriles' main rival Pablo Pérez, said the judicial request was the latest effort of the Chávez government to intimidate political opponents.
In 2004, the late Luis Tascón, a government deputy, released the "Tascón List," a list of Venezuelans who had voted for a referendum urging Mr. Chávez's recall. People on the list lost jobs and were denied government contracts and benefits, opposition activists say. Their hardship has served as a cautionary tale for Venezuelans who may want to vote against Mr. Chávez.
Mr. Barboza said that most ballots, except for a tiny number of districts where losing candidates for mayor had challenged results, had already been destroyed. "That was our agreement with the voters," he said.
The Supreme Court acted at the request of Rafael Velásquez, a losing mayoral candidate, who asked that the ballots be preserved for review. Mr Barboza said he believed Mr. Velásquez had been "manipulated" by Mr. Chávez's government to make his legal challenge.
The normally garrulous Mr. Chávez has kept a rare silence since Mr. Capriles's triumph. Not so state media, which published a column Monday by a government-run radio network titled "The Enemy is Zionism." Written as a profile of Mr. Capriles, it lists activities the writer says shows the candidate's attempts to subvert Mr. Chávez's self-proclaimed "21st century socialist revolution" and claims Mr. Capriles participated in a fascist, white supremacist group.
"This is our enemy, the Zionism that Capriles today represents," the article says. "Zionism, along with capitalism, are responsible for "90% of world poverty and imperialist wars."
Mr. Medina said that the opposition wouldn't respond to the attacks. In a news conference last week, Mr. Capriles predicted he would be the target of such attacks. "You can't build anything on the basis of hate," he said then.
Born and raised in Venezuela, Mr. Capriles is a devout Catholic. He is the grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants who survived the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Mr. Capriles often mentions in speeches how his grandmother arrived in Venezuela with just one suitcase of clothes.
"Using anti-semitism as a political weapon to intimidate, discredit and disparage has been a constant modus operandi by sectors of the Chavista movement," said Dina Siegel Vann, an official at the American Jewish Committee in Washington. "We were just waiting for the barrage to start."
In another broadside, a popular late-night program on state television called "The Razor," which every night vilifies Chávez opponents, alleged that Mr. Capriles was caught having sex with a man in a car. The host of the show, Mario Silva, claimed to be reading a police report from 2000 Press.
Capriles campaign officials rejected the report as a fake.