Powerful, unpopular Venezuela leader faces opposition foes
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Here’s a look at Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the two opposition candidates he faces in Sunday’s election:
The 55-year-old former bus driver rose to power after earning the late President Hugo Chavez’s trust and taking on key roles in the socialist leader’s former government. Before his death from cancer in 2013, Chavez urged Venezuelans to choose Maduro to continue his legacy.
Maduro has tried to ride Chavez’s coattails since narrowly winning the presidency in 2013, but his popularity is now vastly diminished. Polls indicate he has an approval rating of about 20 percent. Under his watch, the country’s economy has experienced one of the most severe recessions in modern Latin America’s history. Crucial revenues from oil have declined as production plummets, and wages have been pulverized by nearly 14,000 percent inflation.
The economic decline is forcing millions of Venezuelans to go hungry and increasingly, leave the country.
Sporting a thick mustache and forceful demeanor, Maduro has moved to consolidate his power by stacking government institutions with loyalists and silencing critics. In speeches before crowds of students and workers, he exhorts Venezuelans to stand with him against U.S. imperialist aggressions. Analysts contend Maduro’s success Sunday hinges on schemes like pressuring state workers to vote and linking food subsidies to a new identification card requested at polling sites.
Once a pro-Chavez governor, Falcon switched alliances in 2010 when he dropped out of the ruling socialist party, accusing his former ally of not taking into account contrarian viewpoints, undercutting Venezuela’s democracy.
The 56-year-old father of four has been a thorn to both Venezuela’s left and right ever since.
Maduro regularly bashes his primary opposition contender as “Fal-Trump” and warns Venezuelans he would once again betray Chavez’s socialist vision by dollarizing the nation’s beleaguered economy and taking cues from the International Monetary Fund.
Opposition leaders meanwhile are skeptical of Falcon’s leftist past and accuse him of providing a veneer of legitimacy to an unfair election by opting to run.
Falcon’s stance: The only way to get Venezuela out of its current mess is to vote.
Aside from dollarizing the economy, Falcon has said one of his first moves would be to free political prisoners and accept humanitarian aid. He would also keep in place the government’s social safety net but halt its use as a mechanism for political patronage.
“Maduro, you have just a few days left before you go to hell!” he taunted on Twitter days before the vote.
The television evangelist is polling below Falcon and Maduro but could nonetheless split the opposition vote.
Bertucci was the first opposition contender to throw his hat in the ring after Venezuela’s pro-government electoral commission announced it was advancing the date of the presidential vote, which is typically held in the fall.
Born into a farming family, the 48-year-old reverend heads the Venezuelan branch of the Maranatha church, a Panama-based Pentecostal movement that was started in 1974 and claims to have 500 churches spread across the world.
He nonetheless has a checkered past which includes an arrest for fuel smuggling eight years ago. His name also surfaced in the papers of a Panamanian law firm at the center of a huge leak of confidential data on the world’s rich and famous.
He once inquired with the Mossack Fonseca firm about opening an offshore company valued at $5 million.
Bertucci has said the company, which he never opened, was part of an effort to import meat to feed hungry Venezuelans.
He has been doling out food at his campaign events and says he knows better than anyone else the suffering of his compatriots.