Presidential Candidates Wrap Up Campaigns In Venezuela

Audie Cornish talks to Steve Inskeep of Morning Edition from Venezuela about the country's presidential election. Thursday is the last day for the candidates to campaign. Venezuelans will choose a new president, replacing the late Hugo Chavez, on Sunday.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In Venezuela, today is the final day allowed for campaigning in the presidential election. Venezuelans are supposed to get a few days of quiet before they choose a president on Sunday. They're replacing Hugo Chavez who died last month. It seems unlikely that either candidate would be able to cut the giant figure that Chavez did. The former president befriended Fidel Castro, defied the United States and reshaped his country's economy. And the new president will be the leader of one of the most oil-rich nations on Earth, as well as a major player in Latin America.

Steve Inskeep of NPR's MORNING EDITION has been reporting from Venezuela this week, and he joins us now from Caracas. Hey there, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi there, Audie.

CORNISH: So, to start, what's it like to be in the middle of the Venezuelan election?

INSKEEP: Very scenic and very loud. I'm in central Caracas now, and it's got its bad parts of the city, but it's a spectacular setting. Anywhere you are in the city, including here, you can see Avila Mountain, this mountain that goes along the length of the city and rises up into the clouds. Down here on the ground, campaign rallies are huge. They are almost unbearably loud. They'd cause you, if you're in radio, to have discussions about whether your ears will survive. And the candidates, when you can hear them, are very personal, very direct, going at each other. It is a fierce campaign here for president.

CORNISH: So, Steve, so does this come across to you as being very familiar, very democratic? And that's interesting because people tend to think of Hugo Chavez as a dictator.

INSKEEP: Well, people outside this country did, and in fact, he's sometimes called the dictator here, or he was. We should speak of him in the past tense. But it's always been more subtle than that. This was a guy who had a real connection to the people at large of Venezuela, who was a brilliant public speaker, operating in a democracy. And Chavez's art had always been to manipulate the rules, to tilt the playing field in his direction, and certainly, his government did that over the course of his 14 years in power.

Opposition media have been restricted over the years, although they're still there and as loud as they can be in some parts of the country. You have the power of the government behind Chavez previously and now behind his chosen successor. In the end, as many observers have said, elections here are free, just not necessarily fair.

CORNISH: And, of course, that successor is Nicolas Maduro. But, essentially, are state leaders here trying to, in effect, have Chavez win without Chavez being there?

INSKEEP: Oh, totally. His picture is everywhere. Chavez's party uses his image all the time, and they could win this way. As Juan Forero of NPR reported yesterday on this program, Nicolas Maduro has the machinery of the state behind him. And, by the way, that machinery is everywhere.

Here in the capital, you sense the support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles. He's a popular state governor. He's run for president before. But the government itself has so much more reach. Last weekend, I was in a village about a five-hour drive outside the capital, way into the mountains, and even in that tiny village, there were posters for Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor, everywhere. They'd begun construction projects just in the last few months, like putting roofs over basketball courts, the kinds of things that politicians do everywhere to build support right before an election.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Venezuela does face some serious economic problems, right?

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, economic and other kinds of problems. Inflation is extremely bad. There are complaints of food shortages. People are not starving, but people do have to scramble around to find basic goods, even simple things like rice, running around to different places. And then there is crime, Audie. This is one of the most dangerous places in an extraordinarily dangerous region. We had an interview scheduled earlier this week with a man, and we're just about to head over to see him when we got a call from his assistant saying that they were very sorry he wouldn't be available because he was kidnapped the night before.

Now, I'm happy to say he's been released. We still hope to catch up with him, but it's an indication of a deep concern that people have with their security and with crime. That's a major issue in this campaign.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep in Caracas, and he'll have more from Venezuela on tomorrow's MORNING EDITION. Steve, thank you for talking with us.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it, Audie.

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