On September 12th a queue of stationary vehicles kilometres long blocked the coastal highway that leads out of Puerto Cabello. “Politics,” said a resident, wearily, by way of explanation. The politics in question were taking place beside the entrance to the port city’s weed-infested airstrip. A small group of supporters was waiting to escort Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition candidate in Venezuela’s presidential election, to a rally in town. A couple of hundred red-shirted supporters of President Hugo Chávez were throwing stones at them from across the highway as a sound system blasted out campaign songs. A pickup truck had been set on fire. “The opposition has no right to come here and deceive working people,” said Luis Rojas, one of the stone-throwers and also an employee of the city’s chavista mayor. Mr Chávez, a former lieutenant-colonel who preaches radical socialism and rails against American imperialism, is seeking to be elected president for the fourth time on October 7th. But after nearly 14 years in power, he faces an unprecedented electoral challenge to his autocratic regime. A previously weak and divided opposition, prone to political miscalculation, has set aside its differences to form a seemingly solid coalition of parties from the left and right, under the banner of the Democratic Unity coalition (MUD).
To the surprise even of the MUD’s supporters, more than 3m of Venezuela’s 19m registered voters took part in its primary election last February, choosing Mr Capriles by a commanding majority. A former governor of Miranda state, which includes large parts of the capital, Caracas, 40-year-old Mr Capriles is 18 years younger than Mr Chávez. He is energetic, centrist and an impressive enough campaigner never so far to have lost an election.
This seems to have rattled the Chávez regime, as the fire and smoke on the Puerto Cabello highway show. The local branch of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) announced its intention to disrupt the MUD rally at a press conference the day before; municipal vehicles were laid on to take the chavistas out there. A dozen people were injured and several vehicles belonging to the opposition looted; the mayor blamed the violence on Mr Capriles. It was not the only one of his recent rallies to have been disrupted by orchestrated violence.