los teques, venezuela | As someone who has spent his entire political career opposing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Henrique Capriles Radonski is accustomed to rough handling.
But even he has been taken aback by some of the viciousness that has erupted since he took office three years ago as the governor of Venezuela’s second-largest state, Miranda.
“They came here and they called me Nazi [even though] my grandmother was in the Warsaw Ghetto,” he said of one attack outside the walls of the old colonial home that serves as his government seat. “My great-grandparents were killed … by the Nazis in Treblinka.”
By “they” he means the red-clad mob, led by the city’s pro-Chavez mayor, who chanted “Nazi fascist!” and sprayed red swastikas onto the outer walls of the Casa Amarilla (Yellow House) in 2009.
Capriles, 38, calls himself a fervent Catholic and does not identify himself as a Jew — yet he has been a lightning rod for anti-Semitic attacks over the past three years.
He describes it as a campaign of “permanent sabotage” by the government.
Recent surveys show that the lanky politician is the most popular politician in Venezuela, and last month he declared his intention to seek the nomination as the opposition candidate against Chavez.
Sensing its best opportunity to defeat Chavez, the opposition for the first time has agreed to unite behind a single candidate chosen in a primary scheduled for February 2012.
This makes Capriles the opposition’s most credible chance of defeating Chavez since he assumed power 13 years ago. The nation has been struggling with rampant crime, double-digit inflation and deteriorating services.
“[Capriles] represents the next generation of Venezuelan political leaders,” said Ricardo Hausmann, director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development and a former Venezuelan minister of planning. “He honed his political skills during very conflicted times and has been able to garner support from a very heterogeneous voting bloc.”
Capriles is used to confronting the government. He was imprisoned in 2004 for 120 days for charges related to his activities as mayor of a middle-class district of Caracas during the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. After several trials he was exonerated, allowing him to move on from mayor to governor.
In 2008 he defeated a powerful Chavez ally to lead Miranda, which has nearly 3 million people. His campaign unnerved the government by finding thousands of new votes in the overcrowded slums surrounding Caracas, which traditionally voted with Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Incensed, Chavez immediately ordered the central government to take over Miranda’s hospitals.
By presidential decree, Chavez dismantled the state’s infrastructure, taking over police units, asphalt plants and state employees, slashing budgets and crippling the governor’s ability to effectively administer power.
However, the moves seem to have backfired: Some polls are showing that as many as three out of four voters are blaming the Chavez government and not Capriles for reduced services.
Many expect an ugly electoral fight ahead, warning that Chavez is unafraid to use the full force of the state’s considerable media and financial resources against his enemies.
“Chavez, of course, has every interest in sowing conflict among the opposition, and he will have considerable resources to do so,” said John Carey, a political scientist at Dartmouth College.
For Jews, this could mean the resurgence of anti-Semitism that many hoped had been put to rest through recent overtures made by the president toward the community.
During the governor’s race in 2008, state media described Capriles as a member of the “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie” and “genetically fascist.”
The state press continues to refer to Capriles as Jewish, as his second surname (Radonski), from his mother, might indicate. (In many Hispanic cultures, it is the first surname, from the father, that is used when addressing people.)
“We have already begun to see a species of feint referring to him as Jewish, which we believe is an attempt to carve out the votes of anti-Semites and especially anti-Israel [voters],” said a Jewish representative who asked to not be identified. “The campaign hasn’t even begun yet, but we’re sure there will be [anti-Semitic] attacks.”
Local Venezuelan Jews say Capriles has “very good relations” with the community, even though he doesn’t identify spiritually with it.
“Because of my mother and grandmother, for Jews I’m Jewish, but I’m Catholic,” Capriles said, noting that he adopted the religion in prison, becoming a “strong believer in the Virgin Mary.”
Still, he said, the Jews’ story of survival affects him deeply.
Responding to whether he believes he will be singled out for personal attacks in the upcoming campaign, he says it doesn’t matter.
“I have the blood of struggle running through my veins,” said Capriles. “My grandparents arrived in Venezuela with just a suitcase full of clothes, fleeing Nazi persecution.”
Capriles says he is ready for whatever lays ahead.
“I’m not here to be a candidate,” he said. “We are in this competition to win.”