Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old politician who lost the Venezuelan presidential election to Hugo Chávez last October, did something bold and entered the race to succeed the legendary leader on Sunday. Even more boldly is the extent to which he walked into this thing swinging. In a news conference, Capriles took aim at Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's appointed vice president and preferred successor, in a serious way. He literally accuses Maduro of using Chávez's illness to prepare his own campaign for president and even suggested, as at least one zany diplomat did last month, that Chávez died a long time ago and Maduro covered it up for political gain. "Nicolas lied to this country," said Capriles, who's currently serving as the governor of Miranda, Venezuela's largest state. "Who knows when president Chávez died?"
Well, according to pretty much every major media outlet, Chávez died five days ago. But it does seem like this conspiracy theory about a government cover up has some legs. Chávez was not seen in public from December 10, when he went to Cuba for yet another round of cancer treatments, until his death on March 5, when Maduro announced his death. However, one has to assume that a the leader was feeling pretty awful, not looking great and probably wanted his people to remember him in such a way. And it's not as if the opposition is the only faction with conspiracy theories in Venezuela right now. Maduro himself accused the country's enemies of infecting Chávez with cancer.
What's strikingly clear — and not at all surprising — is how unusual this presidential campaign could turn out to be. Although Maduro is the heir apparent to Chávez's socialist throne, Capriles is more competitive than you might think. The opposition leader lost to Chávez by 11 points less than six months ago and has beat the late president's lieutenants in governor races on more than one occasion. However, experts point out that Capriles is taking a huge risk by joining the race at all. No matter what, it'll be tough to beat Maduro, a 50-year-old former union leader who's presenting himself as a leader who can carry out Chávez's dying wishes, and if Capriles loses, his political career is probably over.
Well at least Capriles is going to go out fighting. "Nicolas, I won't leave you an open path, friend," he said in announcing his candidacy. "You are going to have to defeat me with votes." It's unclear what the alternative would be.