Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles attend a campaign rally in Valencia, Venezuela, on Thursday. Capriles is running against President Hugo Chavez in the country's Oct. 7 election.
Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles attend a campaign rally in Valencia, Venezuela, on Thursday. Capriles is running against President Hugo Chavez in the country's Oct. 7 election. Rodrigo Abd/AP
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is running for re-election next Sunday. With some polls predicting a tight race, the youth vote in Venezuela is shaping up to be crucial.
That has both the populist president and his challenger working hard to appeal to younger voters who are worried about high crime and jobs — and who can remember no other president than Chavez.
Out on the campaign trail, Angie Rivas passes out fliers and organizes other young people as they canvass this gritty metropolis in a van belting out hip music.
Rivas comes from a poor neighborhood, the kind of district that has consistently supported Chavez in election after election as he's taken Venezuela on a socialist path.
Since winning office 14 years ago in 1998, Chavez has built a mass following among the poor through numerous social programs. But Rivas, who is 25 years old and was only 11 when Chavez took power, is with the challenger, Henrique Capriles.
Capriles is energetic and 18 years younger than Chavez. Rivas says much of his campaign is built on appealing to young people.
"Crime and many other things are important to us," Rivas says, "and that has us leading the Capriles campaign."
Such support is helping Capriles, a former governor and mayor, to challenge Chavez in a way no other candidate has in the past.
At Capriles' campaign stops, the message is his youth, and how after so many years of Chavez, he's now the new alternative in this oil-rich country.
"I'm 40 years old," Capriles said in a recent speech, "and I'm part of a new Venezuela, a new leadership in Venezuela."
Capriles, however, faces a president who pours money into housing and other programs during election time. Chavez also has a potent state media apparatus that offers blanket positive coverage of his policies.
Chavez has also long cultivated the youth vote. He created a Cabinet-level youth ministry, expanded free university slots and placed young people in powerful state posts.
Young people are a large part of the crowd at rallies for Chavez, and they are still coming out in force for "El Comandante." His Socialist Party, after all, has 2.5 million members under the age of 30.
On a busy central street, a bugle calls Chavista youth to action; to pass out posters with the president's image. One of them is 28-year-old Marbellis Linares, who helped organize the effort.
"Compare previous presidents with this one," Linares says. "I'll take this one."
Linares also says Chavez gave hope back to young people.
Genny Zuniga, a sociologist at the Catholic University, says the youth vote may very well decide the campaign. There are more than 7.5 million people between the ages of 18 and 30 in Venezuela, and 40 percent of those are eligible to vote.
Zuniga says many of them are afraid of rampant crime and an economy that's been stagnant under a system that expropriates private property.
"A healthy economic structure is not being generated," Zuniga says. "And without that, quality jobs are not being created."
At the busy Capriles campaign headquarters, one of those campaigning for the challenger is Roberto Patino. He was 10 years old when Chavez was elected.
"We have only seen him as president and we want change," Patino says. "Because he hasn't delivered the solutions that we want."
Patino is a recently graduated engineer, and he worries now about his future. He says friends have left the country to find jobs. He wants to stay, however, and believes it is now time for a new president.