In Venezuela race, Chavez has apparent money edge

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles typically runs his presidential campaign by jogging through Venezuela's small towns, reaching out to supporters with both hands and climbing aboard the back of a flatbed truck to speak to hundreds of people.

By contrast, President Hugo Chavez brings large sound trucks, a production team and a fleet of buses that carry supporters and government employees to plazas to cheer him on by the thousands.

A little more than a month ahead of Venezuela's Oct. 7 election, Chavez enjoys clear advantages over his challenger in campaign funding and media access. While neither campaign has revealed how much it's spending, Capriles says he is in a "David vs. Goliath" contest, facing a well-financed incumbent backed by an even richer government.

"We're fighting against two checkbooks. There's no way to compete economically speaking," said Rafael Guzman, who is in charge of finances for the opposition coalition. He accused the government of using money from the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, and a separate development fund, Fonden, to support Chavez's campaign and bankroll projects aimed at boosting his support.

Chavez's allies say Capriles is being backed by business tycoons including fugitive bankers who have fled the country and oppose the president. Chavez's camp hasn't provided details of those accusations.

The law does not limit individual campaign contributions, though Guzman says the Capriles campaign caps donations it receives at a maximum of 2,000 bolivars ($465), even though people can make many such donations. He said all have come from individuals, none from companies.

"We aren't receiving anything from businesses," Guzman said.

So far, Capriles' campaign doesn't look like it's rolling in wealth. It has even taken to holding raffles, fundraising dinners and weekend street fairs selling used clothes and donated food.

Judith Beltran recently browsed through stands selling landscape paintings, handbags, underwear and used baby clothes at Caracas' Petare slum, holding a bagful of clothes she'd just purchased.

"I came because they're selling everything cheap and also to help out Capriles," she said.

Meanwhile, Chavez's face smiles down from innumerable billboards and signs festooned on lampposts throughout Caracas and other cities, far more than Capriles' campaign has managed.

There's no spending limit on such advertising, but the law limits campaigns to just three minutes of paid TV ads a day, and Capriles' backers say there's no clear line between Chavez's campaign ads and the much more frequent government promotional spots showing the president doling out apartments to the needy.

The law doesn't prevent Chavez from using his power as president to take over programming on all of the country's TV channels and radio stations for his speeches, something he does regularly.

Chavez and his allies say he's merely governing, not wielding any campaign edge that could be considered unfair.

"Hugo Chavez's advantage (is) in his power of communicating with his people," his campaign manager, Jorge Rodriguez, said last month.

Rodriguez on Wednesday also denied that Chavez has an edge in airtime, saying much of the coverage by private TV channels and radio stations favors Capriles.

In a recent televised appearance for the opening of a state-run supermarket, Chavez tried to differentiate his roles as president and candidate. "I'm complying with an obligation to inform the public," he said.

"I am going to say what I'm going to say very carefully. It shouldn't be interpreted as campaigning," Chavez said. Chavez then responded to criticism by Capriles and other adversaries that he is giving away Venezuela's oil wealth through preferential deals with allies.

Chavez's socialist party, for its part, insists it uses no public funds and gets its money from supporters. It held a raffle last week with prizes that included a new car, motorcycles and appliances. Some Chavez opponents called for electoral officials to investigate that raffle, saying public employees had reported that they were forced to buy tickets.

Venezuelan election law requires candidates to provide detailed monthly financial reports to electoral officials, but the National Electoral Council generally doesn't publicly release financial figures during the campaign.

Neither the Chavez nor Capriles campaign revealed how much money they've raised when asked in writing by The Associated Press. Chavez's campaign didn't respond to requests for comment, and officials in Capriles' campaign said it was unable to provide a figure.

Venezuelan election law also prohibits campaign donations from government entities, foreign donors and companies that are contracted to provide public services.

Venezuela is atypical in Latin America in that it doesn't provide public financing for campaigns or political parties, said Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas program at the Carter Center. She has directed past election-monitoring missions in Venezuela and other countries.

"Because there's no regulated public financing, then that means that all of the sources of money are private or undisclosed, and so it's very difficult to assess how much each side is spending and where the money comes from," McCoy said in an interview during a visit to Caracas.

"I really have no idea how much each side is spending," she said, "but in terms of the opportunities particularly for the media presence and the opportunities for providing benefits to voters, certainly an incumbent government — and this incumbent government — has an advantage."

The opposition has complained that Chavez has abused his presidential authority by taking over the airwaves, but the National Election Council has taken no action on the matter. Four of the council's five members are Chavez allies or widely perceived as favoring the president.

Vicente Diaz, the one council member often openly critical of the government, said in an interview that a candidate such as Capriles is essentially running "against the state."

"It's not fair," Diaz said, but added that "the popular will is respected, and the one who has the votes is going to win."


Associated Press writers Ian James and Fabiola Sanchez and AP freelance video journalist Ricardo Nunes contributed to this report.