In Venezuela, A Candidate Out Of Left Field

Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday in local elections. A strong opposition showing could force the increasingly authoritarian presidency of Nicolas Maduro to change course. Among the candidates: a former Major League Baseball player-turned rapper.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. We go now to Venezuelan, where there are local elections tomorrow. For many in that country, these elections are a referendum on President Nicolas Maduro. And since coming to power, Mr. Maduro has been struggling. High inflation and food shortages have made him deeply unpopular. So in this election, he seems to counting on other candidates from his government, including one who's better known as a rapper than a politician. John Otis reports from Caracas.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Though rich in oil, Venezuela's economy is hardly healthy. The South American country has one of the highest inflation rates in the world. On the black market, the bolivar, Venezuela's currency, sells for 10 times the official rate. Amid the turmoil, the Maduro government has opted for even more control over the economy. Its latest move was to order business owners to slash prices on everything from computers to cars.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Si se puede! Si, se puede...

OTIS: At this Caracas march, anti-government protesters urged Venezuelans to express their dismay on Sunday, when 335 mayoral posts are up for grabs. They believe a strong showing by opposition candidates could further weaken President Maduro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ANTONIO ALVAREZ: (Rapping in foreign language)

OTIS: To prevent that from happening, the ruling Socialist Party is touting some unorthodox candidates in places like Sucre. It's a Caracas suburb and former Chavez stronghold that's now controlled by the opposition. Here, the government candidate for mayor is Antonio Alvarez, a former Major League Baseball player who is now a rap singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ALVAREZ: (Rapping in foreign language)

OTIS: Alvarez goes by the nickname El Potro, Spanish for the colt. He played outfield for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 2000s. After retiring, he married a former Miss Venezuela beauty queen and recorded a string of popular rap songs, like "Me Gusta."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME GUSTA")

ALVAREZ: (Rapping in foreign language)

OTIS: Alvarez also supported Hugo Chavez, a baseball fanatic who sometimes invited Alvarez to appear on his TV program, "Hello Mr. President."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HELLO MR. PRESIDENT")

OTIS: After Chavez died, Alvarez announced he would run for mayor of Sucre. At a news conference to kick off his campaign, he brushed off concerns that he has no political experience.

ALVAREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Baseball, he said, has given me a sound mind and body, and a strong sense of discipline and teamwork. That is true socialism. One person who agrees is Legny Uban, an Alvarez volunteer whom I meet at a campaign rally.

LEGNY UBAN: In many ways, when you are a baseball player, you work as a team. You work with the people - because it is not a single sport. You have to work in teams to work on any idea, or any project. So in the music, it is the same thing.

OTIS: But there are other factors in the government's decision to endorse a political novice like Alvarez.

MARGARITA LOPEZ MAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Caracas political analyst Margarita Lopez Maya says the government increasingly looks down its nose at academics, technocrats and traditional politicians because most of them side with the opposition. Instead, official rhetoric extolls the virtues and street savvy of average Venezuelans, who often lack formal education. Indeed, Chavez rose up from a working-class family as did President Maduro, a former bus driver.

MAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Lopez Maya tells me that even Education Ministry officials have touted the wisdom of the people as being more important than formal education.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)

ALVAREZ: (Rapping from stage)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Rapping in response)

OTIS: In addition, Alvarez is a mega-watt celebrity who could persuade young people to vote for the ruling party. At this free concert in a Sucre slum, Alvarez attracted thousands of fans.

ALVAREZ: (Rapping in foreign language)

OTIS: Alvarez is trying to defeat incumbent Sucre Mayor Carlos Ocariz, a civil engineer and former congressman.

CARLOS OCARIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Ocariz says the opposition aims to win in Caracas and other big cities, and garner more total votes than government candidates. That, he says, could force Maduro's increasingly authoritarian left-wing government to change course. As for Sucre, polls show Ocariz with a healthy lead over Alvarez.

OCARIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: The government thought it could win by bringing in a celebrity, Ocariz says. But on election day, this is going to backfire.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas.

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