MARACAIBO, Venezuela — Pablo Pérez, the 42-year-old governor of oil-rich Zulia state, knows the risks of taking on President Hugo Chávez. Pérez’s predecessor in the governor’s mansion, Manuel Rosales, fled to Peru in 2009 amid corruption charges that surfaced after his failed presidential bid. And last year, Rosales’ chief of security was sentenced to 19 years on murder charges, just three months after winning a seat in Congress.
Government critics say those allegations were trumped-up to sideline the popular politicians from this opposition stronghold. Even so, Pérez announced earlier this month that he hopes to take on the ailing Chávez in the 2012 race.
“I can’t turn my back on the country just because they’re going to come after me,” said Pérez, surrounded by pictures of his wife and three kids at the governor’s mansion. “It’s the risk that comes with the job.”
Even as he shuttles back and forth to Cuba to treat an undisclosed form of cancer, Chávez says he will run in next year’s race and “knock out” anyone the opposition might throw at him. Those claims aren’t empty, analysts say.
Despite facing spiraling violence, an anemic economy and record-high inflation, Chávez commands fierce loyalty in this South American nation. In power for 12 years, he enjoys approval ratings near 50 percent. In addition, his government’s dominance over the judicial system, the national purse strings and a massive media operation mean he will be a formidable opponent even if his convalescence keeps him sidelined.
On a recent weekday, Pérez was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, jeans and sneakers, as he prepared to walk the sweltering streets of Maracaibo. He said he plans to win over voters house-by-house.
“This country needs a president who represents everyone,” he said. “And that includes Chávez’s supporters.”
During his three years as governor, Pérez has shown a penchant for the common touch. His communications staff scrolled through pictures of him wading through the mud, sharing coffee in the wooden shacks of Chávez sympathizers and helping an old lady wash dishes. There weren’t many pictures of the governor in a suit.
“He’s always out in the field,” a staffer said.
Pérez said his two main focuses are on healthcare and education. And he said he’s the only opposition candidate who can guarantee an orderly transition if Chávez loses.
“I’m the only governor, the only elected official from the opposition that has had some sort of dialogue with the national government,” he said. “A real democracy needs a strong government but also an equally strong alternative point of view There is no reason for Chávez’s supporters to be scared.”
There are no guarantees that Pérez will ever face Chávez at the polls. The coalition of opposition parties, known as the MUD, will hold a primary Feb. 12 to choose a single candidate. Pérez has vowed to respect the outcome but says he’s convinced he’ll win that vote.
But he has a long road ahead of him, said Luis Vicente León, the director of the Datanalisis polling firm. Before he announced his candidacy on Aug. 17, Pérez was running far behind the frontrunner, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the charismatic governor of Miranda state.
Since then, Pérez has likely moved up some — particularly with the backing of his exiled mentor Rosales — but he is still trailing, León said.
“Pérez is new and young and that plays in his favor,” León said. “But he’s not as well known nationally as Capriles — although he can change that on the campaign trail.”
Pérez may not be a national figure, but being from Zulia is the next best thing. Bordering Colombia and wrapping around Lake Maracaibo, Zulia is the nation’s most populous and wealthiest state with some 3.8 million people.
The heart of Venezuela’s oil industry, Zulia has always had an independent streak. For the last decade, the governor’s office has been in the hands of Un Nuevo Tiempo, the party that Rosales founded and which helped propel Pérez’s career.
The state’s reputation as an opposition haven has made it a target.
The government regularly throws heavy-hitters at political races in Zulia, and has vowed to poach Pérez’s job next year.
Francisco Arias Cardenas, the vice president of Chávez’s PSUV party, accused Pérez of letting his presidential ambitions get in the way of his job, and told Panorama newspaper he had “no doubt” that Pérez was funneling state funds into his presidential campaign.
“The most honest thing for him to do would be to step down from his position if he wants to join the national campaign,” Arias told the newspaper. “Then he can go back to his state because we are going to give him a whipping in 2012.”
The national government is also stepping up some of its most popular programs in Zulia: Free houses for the poor and opening up subsidized food markets. Those kinds of initiatives resonate with many in Maracaibo.
Jose Contreras, 65, was standing outside a betting parlor where Pérez was scheduled to inaugurate a freshly paved road. Contreras said that while Chávez was building houses and working for the poor, Pérez was only making noise.
“I call him the billboard governor,” Contreras said. “All he does is put up billboards but you never see the projects. He spends his time picking fights with Chávez.”
Chávez is fighting back. While the opposition has yet to settle on a unified candidate, the government has been using its national network of radio and television stations to take potshots.
Most recently, a pro-Chávez television show, called La Hojilla, or The Razor, has been airing private telephone conversations between opposition figures. In one of those calls, Oswaldo Alvarez, another presidential candidate, is allegedly heard talking to an opposition activist. In that call, they’re heard saying that even Pérez’s mother thinks his presidential bid is foolish and that they fear he might damage the opposition’s cause.
The coalition has accused the government of being complicit in wire-tapping phones, and allowing pro-government channels to break the law even as opposition media outlets are shuttered for minor infractions.
Pérez said the tapes show just how desperate Chávez is. He said he has talked to all the leading opposition candidates, including Capriles, and they are determined not to fall into the trap.
“The government will do everything in its power to break us apart,” he said. “But we’re going to stand firm. We have all talked about this and we have agreed that we’re not going to let this get out of our hands.”
As he surveys Venezuela’s electoral map, Pérez begins talking about former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 race. Like Clinton, he’s the governor of a far-flung state. And Chávez, like then President George H.W. Bush, is an incumbent with an international profile.
“Nobody would expect that a man like Clinton, who came from such a small state like Arkansas, would ever make it to the presidency,” Pérez said, noting that he shares Clinton’s Aug. ust 19 birthday. “But these things can happen, if you have conviction.”