On a roundabout on one of Caracas's wealthier streets, around 40 students lie on mattresses shielded from the sun by a tarp. They haven't eaten for three days. "The second day is completely different to the first. My head hurts much more. I feel weak. My arms and legs ache," said Vanessa Eisig, a 22-year-old communications student at the local Andres Bello University.
She is one of many young opposition supporters who spent last weekend and the beginning of this week on hunger strike. Flanked by a bank headquarters, a high-end hotel, and various foreign embassies, they're protesting the "injustice" of the National Electoral Council, a supposedly independent branch of the government that oversees elections and—the hunger strikers feel—is heavily biased toward Hugo Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
They hope that Henrique Capriles Radonski, the 40-year-old state governor who lost to Chavez in last October’s presidential election, will win this Sunday against Chavez’s chosen successor Nicolas Maduro, who has been the country's interim president since Chavez's death last month. “We're here demanding that the elections are clean, just, and free,” added Eisig. “That's why we're here. If we didn't think it would work, we wouldn't be here.”
On Monday night, Eisig's resolve was tested. She and the roughly 40 other protesters told me that they were attacked by red-clad, pro-government supporters on motorbikes who shot into the air and threw Molotov cocktails and rocks towards them.
“We're here on this peaceful hunger strike, but we were attacked by about 50 people on motorbikes belonging to the government,” said a clearly shaken Henry Linares, an 18-year-old student who was also taking part in the hunger strike. “They robbed us of our stuff. Around ten students were injured, but we're continuing the fight. I'm tired. I feel terrible. But we'll continue our fight.”
Friend and fellow hunger-striker Esteban Galup added, “It was organized,” implying the government could have been involved in the attack, or at least gave it tacit approval. Maduro, appearing on state television, has instead placed the blame on Washington, claiming the attack was carried out by a “small, violent group, financed by the US government.”
Maduro, who rose from humble roots as a bus driver in Caracas, has picked up on Chavez’s flair for the dramatic, attacking Washington with increasingly surreal public statements.
In another televized speech, Maduro said that Chavez had appeared to him as a small bird. “It sang and I responded with a song, and the bird took flight, circled around once, and then flew away,” he said, imitating the bird’s call as well as the sounds of its wings flapping. “I felt the spirit and blessings of Comandante Chavez for this battle.”
Preceding that bizarre little outburst, Maduro invoked a 16th-century curse on those who don’t vote for him in Sunday’s election and has also referred to himself as Chavez’s “son” and called his former boss the “prophet of Christ on Earth.” He even suggested that Chavez had nudged Christ into choosing a Latin American pope.
“Chavez is the government's most powerful weapon,” said Eisig. “The image of Chavez is close to many Venezuelans' hearts.” But, said Eisig, “It's clear that Maduro isn't Chavez.”
Capriles is closing the gap in polls, but Maduro appears likely to win, surfing a wave of sympathy on the late comandante's death. “Nicolas, you are not Chavez,” Capriles has repeatedly said, keen to peg the fight between himself and Maduro rather than an abstract messianic figure.
The message is slowly getting across to Chavez supporters. In Chavez’s birthplace of Barinas, 60-year-old farmer Ángel Sánchez says he is a Chavista and always will be, but “I’ll vote for Capriles,” he adds.
Chavez grew up in a mud hut in the country's wild plains, famous for their cowboys and revolutionaries. Rather than accept ridicule for his bus-driver roots, Maduro is using them to his advantage, driving to rallies in a bus, following in Chavez's working-class footsteps.
"Do you want one of the rancid bourgeois to win?" Maduro screamed at a recent rally. "Or do you want a worker, a son of Chavez, a patriot and a revolutionary?"
Capriles, on the other hand, comes from a rich family, the owners of a string of cinemas across the country. Unlike many opposition leaders, he has worked hard over the years to woo the country's poor, riding into slums on his motorbike and playing basketball with the locals. His governance, should he win, would likely follow the model of Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who mixed social policies with sound economic ones. "I'm 100 percent Lula," Capriles said last year.
Capriles's focus on the poor appears to be working, closing the gap between his policies and the left-wing ones of Chavismo. “I’d vote for Chavez if he were alive, of course,” he said. “Maduro isn’t smart enough to govern this country.” Statements like that no doubt give the protesters and Capriles hope.
As well as an unfair electoral council, Eisig says the opposition must also battle the government’s takeover of the airwaves. Chavez was famous for using forced television and radio time, known as a cadena, to push his own propaganda, and Maduro looks to be doing the same.
“Capriles has limited time on air,” she said. “We’re asking that the government not be allowed to use cadenas for political propaganda.”
“Venezuela has totally deteriorated,” added Eisig. The country’s economy is in tatters, with a severely overvalued currency and one of the region’s highest rates of inflation. “Supermarkets are too expensive,” said Eisig. “Most of the time, you can’t get what you want: toilet paper, flour... I’ve seen fights for the last products on the shelves, but that's normal for us now.”
Venezuela is also one of the most deadly countries on the planet; its capital Caracas has a murder rate comparable to war zones. “We go out and we don’t know if we’ll return or get caught in crossfire,” Eisig told me.
Lying on a mattress next to Eisig is Ángel Gutiérrez, an 18-year-old student. “In 14 years, the Revolution has achieved nothing. Capriles can win,” he said, “if the elections are just. If he doesn’t, we’ll keep fighting.”
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