Venezuelan Populist Governor Challenges Chavez

Two women talk in front of a graffiti al

hide captionTwo women stand in front of graffiti that says "Your vote is secret" in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday. Sunday's parliamentary elections will likely reduce President Hugo Chavez's sway on the National Assembly by giving the opposition its first voice there since it boycotted the last vote in 2005.

Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long been the standard bearer of leftist populism in South America, but there is another populist leader in the country who is leftist and connects with the crowds: Henri Falcon, the governor of a small state who is helping lead a breakaway political party against Chavez.

This Sunday, Falcon's party may change the balance of power in congressional elections.

Waking Up with Henri

Falcon gets up early in Barquisimeto, his signature baseball cap down low. Before dawn, he's in the poorest districts of Lara, his largely rural state.

He calls it Waking Up with Henri, and the idea is simple: Any given morning, the governor and his aides could show up at your door and see what you need.

Walking into a tiny store, Falcon says its owner, Marjory Suarez, needs a small loan. He says the Venezuela he wants to build needs to provide people like her with a safety net.

Suarez, a single mother, smiles broadly.

"There's no one like Henri," she says in Spanish. "He's always provided me with help."

Political Success

Moments later, Falcon is in a crowd, receiving letters from residents -– wish lists from people who want him to resolve their problems. He easily mingles in a crowd, remembering names, recalling people's stories.

That has paid off politically. He was twice mayor of Barquisimeto, the state capital, and he won the governorship in 2008 with ease.

Until recently, that made him an important ally for Chavez. But Falcon broke with the president and joined Fatherland for All, a small leftist party that had once supported Chavez.

"With Chavez," Falcon says in Spanish, "there is no second-guessing, no debating, no consensus building."

He says 95 percent of Venezuelans want an end to confrontation and hate. Falcon blames Chavez, saying the president has become increasingly autocratic. But he also is wary of the opposition.

"The solution," he says, "is a move to the center, with Fatherland for All playing a key role."

Criticism From Chavez

Making such plans a reality will not be easy. Chavez retains popular support in many poor districts. And the president is constantly campaigning, his speeches televised in full on several state television channels.

On his weekly TV show, Chavez called Falcon a traitor and a coward. He also said Falcon is out to topple his government.

But the political reality in Venezuela is that Chavez is facing a challenge. Polls show that Venezuelans are tired of rampant crime, high inflation and food shortages. They also show that the president's foes may stop Chavez's allies from winning the two-thirds the government wants in Congress.

There is even a possibility that Chavez's foes could eke out a majority –- particularly if Fatherland for All can win seven or eight seats.

Counting On Support

Jose Simon Calzadilla is among the party's candidates. He says the party is angling to become the second-strongest movement in Venezuela, after Chavez’s socialist movement.

It's counting on people like Miriam Escalante, the principal of a public school. She says she regrets supporting Chavez, saying the country has been hard-hit by corruption and polarization.

As Escalante speaks, Falcon wades into a crowd of teachers and students at her school.

For a moment, it seems as if the people here, at least, have already decided who'll be their leader.

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