Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader who runs marathons in his spare time, hopes to give Hugo Chavez a close race in elections next weekend, reports Philip Sherwell.
By Philip Sherwell, Maracaibo, Venezuela
5:44PM BST 29 Sep 2012
Soaked by rain and perspiration, Henrique Capriles retreated reluctantly inside his campaign bus as the horn-blowing, flag-waving convoy crept through the pot-holed streets of the slums of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second city.
A late evening tropical thunderstorm had finally forced him from his place atop a pick-up truck after a typical 12-hour day of rapturous rallies and rock-star receptions for the dashing 40-year-old opposition leader.
Undeterred by the downpour, the exuberant crowds outside chanted his name as firecrackers erupted in the pitch-darkness that is graphic testimony to the failure of the country with the world's largest oil reserves to deliver electricity to its own poor.
In Venezuela's presidential elections on Sunday, Mr Capriles faces one of the toughest challenges in global politics - defeating Hugo Chavez.
The socialist autocrat dominates the airwaves and is tapping the state's deep oil coffers to fund his campaign and "buy" votes with a calculated explosion of investment in populist social programme in the weeks before the vote.
But despite its energy riches, the country is mired in debt and unemployment as state-imposed price and exchange rate controls shackle the economy. And violent crime is so endemic that Caracas has the unenviable ranking of the murder capital of the world.
Now, with the long-divided opposition united for the first time behind a charismatic state governor who is already a veteran of Venezuela's rough-and-tumble politics despite his youthful years, President Chavez is facing his most serious competition at the ballot box since he came to power in 1998.
At stake is the grip on power of an anti-Western firebrand who embraces Iran and China and is seeking to use the nation's oil wealth to export his dream of a socialist revolution across Latin America.
It is a "David and Goliath" battle, Mr Capriles told The Sunday Telegraph during a wide-ranging interview in which he pledged a number of radical breaks from the policies of the former paratrooper officer know by his fervent supporters as "El Comandante".
On his first day in office, he said, he would halt the "gifts" of free or heavily-subsidised oil to Mr Chavez's left-wing ideological allies in Cuba and Nicaragua. Nor would there be any more discount deals to sympathetic Western leaders such as Ken Livingstone, a Chavez admirer who as London mayor negotiated cheap oil from Caracas for the capital's buses.
The cosy relationship with Iran would end, Mr Capriles added, and he would also review the land expropriations conducted under Mr Chavez's agrarian reform "fiasco" - including the seizure of estates from Britain's Vestey Group.
"We have so many problems here in Venezuela, but Chavez's priority is to create his own world revolution," he said.
"His land reform programme has been a disaster and he sends billions of dollars of oil abroad each year, but there are hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have problems putting food on the table.
"For Chavez, that is not important. What matters to him is building what he calls his 21st century socialism."
The Sunday Telegraph spent a day on the campaign trail with Mr Capriles as he dashed across two states, drawing crowds from the coffee plantations of the Andean foothills to the steamy lowlands around Lake Maracaibo.
Until recently, he would walk routes thronged by supporters for several miles each day. But as their numbers have surged, the candidate has been forced to swap feet for wheels and now takes centre stage in a colourful caravan of cars, buses, lorries and motorcycles that wend their way between appearances.
From his pick-up truck, he goes through dozens of baseball caps bearing his campaign slogan "There is a Way", removing the hats from his head and casting them to the crowds along the way.
The youthful politician with the broad toothy grin is mobbed, hugged and indeed often groped by adoring women at opposition rallies. Currently single, a status that only adds to his allure to female fans, his previous relationships with two high-profile Venezuelan women were staples for the glossy magazines.
He is an enthusiastic amateur marathon runner and a workaholic who sleeps just four hours a night. And the energy of the campaign encourages an unstated contrast with Mr Chavez, 58, who was in his time regarded as a heart-throb of the Left. The president has undergone several debilitating treatments for cancer over the last 15 months in Cuba, the communist Caribbean outpost that he previously visited as a political pilgrim.
At a rally in Caracas the night before the Capriles cross-country jaunt, Mr Chavez looked healthy enough, his hair grown back after the chemotherapy. The crowds appeared to demonstrate a near-religious fervour, several women fainting in the scrum, but many of their ranks were bused in direct from jobs at state enterprises and handed red T-shirts to wear for the occasion.
Perhaps most tellingly, after a 90-minute ride on a truck through the city's working-class western districts, Mr Chavez - a leader renowned for delivering speeches that last for hours - passed on the chance to speak on stage at a rally packed with prominent supporters.
He he, however, energetically thrown insults at his opponent, who he portrays as an "imperialist lackey" intent on selling out Venezuelan oil to international energy companies.
He has also accused Mr Capriles of planning a "savage" programme of privatisation and cuts that would benefit the old elite and spark "civil war" - a threat that reeks of scare tactics.
"He's afraid," said Mr Capriles, who insisted that despite his pro-business roots, his role model for Venezuela is Brazil, which has pursued a social democratic model mixing the public and private sectors.
The challenger would also ditch the "revolutionary" underpinnings of the Chavez regime, including the close ties to Iran and Belarus, often described as "Europe's last dictatorship".
"That is going to change," he said. "We don't have a similar culture or history to Iran or to Belarus, but Chavez sees his foreign relationships as a political project as he wants to be friends with those who are against the US and Europe.
"But Venezuela needs good relations with countries that have democracy and respect human rights. Iran and Belarus are not in that group."
He dismissed as another example of gesture politics the farm seizures ordered under the Chavez land reform programme in an attempt to force redistribution of property from wealthy and foreign owners to poor farmers.
"The expropriations were a big mistake, the whole policy has been a fiasco," he said. "Nothing works now. Venezuela has 30 million hectares of fertile land but we only use less than 10 per cent of it and we now import 80 per cent of our food, including rice from the so-called US 'imperialists'."
Mr Capriles pledged that his government would review as "my responsibility under the law" each such case, including the seizure of estates from the Vestey Group, the family-owned ranching and sugar cane company headed by Lord Vestey, one of Britain's richest men. Decisions on whether to return property would be determined by several factors, including whether compensation was paid and who was now living on the land.
And Mr Capriles said there could be no clearer example of the failings of President Chavez than the Maracaibo slums he had just toured with The Sunday Telegraph.
Venezuela has earned $600-$800 billion from oil sales during the Chavez administration, much of it from deposits around Maracaibo, the booming capital of Zulia, the country's richest energy state.
However, the slums in the city's west have no running water, generators are the only source of power and open sewers spill onto the unpaved alleys that run past squat concrete homes and sheet-metal shanties.
"This place captures the contradictions of Venezuela," said Mr Capriles.
"Chavez has had 14 years and things aren't any better. He has failed. 14 years is enough. This country is desperate for change."
Yet the same neighbourhood also illustrates Mr Capriles' greatest hurdle next Sunday. For despite the enthusiastic reception for the opposition candidate, this is a traditional Chavista stronghold - thanks to the government "missions" funded by oil revenues that provide soup kitchens, subsided food and free health care in clinics staffed with Cuban medics.
Those programmes have earned Mr Chavez a reputation as a champion of the working classes. But they have also created a dependency culture that provides the bedrock of his support at the ballot box.
"The missions are important and I will keep them," said Mr Capriles. "But they are not enough. The next step is to provide jobs. Chavez's policies cannot provide that, and I can.
"For Chavez, state control is everything as that is the only way he can remain in power. If the government controls everything, then the people are not strong. That is what Chavez wants."
The Venezuelan president is seeking an unprecedented fourth term in office after altering his nation's constitution and subverting the institution of state to his political demands.
And for all the carnival atmosphere of the rallies, there is a violent undercurrent. Chavista hot-heads attacked a recent opposition rally, stoning and setting fire to vehicles, and security analysts have warned of the dangers of post-election violence if the president is ousted.
It is a daunting challenge, but Mr Capriles is an old hand in the country's turbulent politics. At just 26, he became the youngest Venezuelan MP ever elected, later served as vice president of the national chamber of deputies, ran a major Caracas mayoralty for eight years and defeated a close Chavez ally in 2008 to win the governorship of Miranda, the second most populous state.
He was jailed briefly in 2004 for his alleged involvement in a short-lived coup against Mr Chavez in 2002 -- a conviction that supporters insist was a politically-motivated set-up.
I would not want to be Henrique's driver.