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Gregory Wilpert a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he taught at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an english-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). He moved back to the U.S. in 2008 because his wife was named Consul General of Venezuela in New York. Since returning to the U.S. he has been working as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College.
NICOLAS MADURO, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): President-Commander Hugo Chavez Frias died today, March 5, at 4:25 p.m.GREGORY WILPERT, ADJ. PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, BROOKLYN COLLEGE: Three weeks after then vice president of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro announced that President Chavez had died on March 5, the campaign to succeed Chavez is in full swing. The two main candidates vying for the Venezuelan presidency, Henrique Capriles Radonski for the opposition coalition and acting president Nicolas Maduro for the Bolivarian Revolution, embody stark differences as well as similarities in their candidacies.Maduro is a former bus driver and union leader who ended up holding key positions in the Chavez government, such as president of the National Assembly, then as foreign minister, and finally as vice president, shortly before Chavez named him as his preferred successor.HUGO CHAVEZ, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT: My firm opinion, as whole as the full moon, irrevocable, absolute, total, is that in the eventuality of facing the scenario where new elections have to be called as the Constitution demands, I ask from you with all of my heart to elect Nicolas Maduro as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.WILPERT: Throughout this time, Maduro proved to be one of Chavez's most loyal and reliable members of his inner circle. Shortly after the announcement of Chavez's death, Maduro began campaigning actively, and has since then focused his campaign on the theme of battling crime. Currently, most Venezuelans consider crime to be one of the country's greatest problems, especially since the homicide rate increased by nearly 12 percent in 2012, according to Venezuela's minister of the interior, giving Venezuela the second-highest homicide rate in Latin America at 55 per 100,000 inhabitants.Maduro's other campaign theme has been the preservation and deepening of the legacy of President Chavez.Another recurrent theme of the Maduro campaign is that the opposition is receiving support from the United States, particularly from former Bush State Department officials Otto Reich and Roger Noriega. MADURO: President Obama, keep your "crazies" in check. Roger Noriega and Otto Reich keep conspiring and moving a lot of money to disrupt peace and social order in our country.WILPERT: Maduro accuses them of providing money and advice to the opposition, who recommend that opposition candidate Capriles Radonski withdraw from the campaign, with the argument that Maduro enjoys too many advantages of incumbency and that a withdrawal would delegitimize an election that Capriles is bound to lose. The accusation that Capriles Rodonski might withdraw from the presidential campaign has some traction in the Venezuelan public, because in 2005 the opposition boycotted the National Assembly vote, against the urging of the Organization of American States.Also, when the opposition coalition, the National Unity Roundtable, nominated Capriles as their presidential candidate, Capriles took three days to reflect on whether to accept the nomination. The Constitution 30 days for new elections following a president's death. And this gives Capriles little enough time to overcome the memory of a popular president and the sympathy that his death generated, despite Capriles's high name recognition because of his campaign against Chavez last year.Another key problem that Capriles faces, just as he did in his campaign against Chavez last October, is that he is associated with the country's upper class, given that his two last names remind Venezuelans that he comes from two of Venezuela's richest families, the Capriles family, which owns a newspaper and media conglomerate, and which publishes the country's largest circulation newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, and the Radonski family, which owns one of Venezuela's two national cinema chains, called Cinex.Capriles's background contrasts quite strongly with that of Nicolas Maduro, who intentionally reminds voters of his bus driver background by driving a bus to many campaign events.Capriles tries to counter this contrast by promising a fairer and more efficient implementation of the government's policies, particularly with regard to the popular social programs and crime prevention. Another focus of the Capriles campaign has been to slam the government's recent 32 percent devaluation of the currency on February 8 of this year, calling it a "Red Paquetazo" or "Package Slap," implying that the measure is similar to the IMF-imposed "Paquetazo" that doubled prices and enforced austerity from one day to the next in February 1989 and that led to days of rioting in Venezuela.Government officials, however, argue that this devaluation is actually a currency adjustment, which merely adjusts the exchange rate of the local currency, the Bolivar, to reflect the value it has already lost over the past few years due to the consistently high inflation rate of 20 to 25 percent per year. Last month's devaluation is the first such adjustment in three years. The economic argument against the government will therefore probably not go very far among Venezuelans, especially given that the economy is doing fairly well, despite the relatively high inflation rate of 20 percent. Last week, the Venezuelan Statistics Institute announced that unemployment had dropped by another 1.6 percent relative to the previous year, and is currently at 7.6 percent. Also, last year's economic growth was a respectable 5.6 percent.While inflation is frustrating for all Venezuelans, incomes for working-class Venezuelans and for those who earn the minimum wage rose faster in 2011 and 2012. Despite the obvious differences between the two campaigns, in some ways they also resemble each other, because both candidates wear a baseball cap made of the Venezuelan flag as their main piece of campaign paraphernalia. Also, both promise to reduce crime and to maintain and improve the country's popular social programs. In addition, the Capriles campaign is copying a page from the Chavez playbook by calling its campaign team the "Simon Bolivar Commando", a reference to the independence leader that the opposition previously always avoided.Independent opinion polls, however, consistently give acting president Nicolas Maduro a solid advantage of between 14 and 20 points, which shows that the opposition's efforts to discredit Maduro and the Chavez legacy is not having much traction among the Venezuelan public and that the April 14 vote is likely to be another landslide for the pro-Chavez forces.Greg Wilpert reporting for The Real News Network.
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