Iran has considered Venezuela one of its closest allies under radical President Hugo Chavez, but that could be about to change. Henrique Capriles, who will stand against Mr Chavez in presidential elections this Sunday, has said he will rethink relations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he wins. Mr Capriles, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, was branded a “Zionist enemy” by state media after his victory in February’s primaries. Mr Chavez also called him a “pig”.
The 40-year-old state governor has united the opposition to become the first candidate with a genuine chance of overcoming Mr Chavez since he came to power 14 years ago.
One recent poll in Venezuela puts Mr Capriles just ahead of his socialist rival. Another, however, gives Mr Chavez a 10-point lead.
Mr Chavez, who suffered from cancer in the build-up to the election campaign, has enjoyed a cosy relationship with Mr Ahmadinejad.
That relationship is based on a shared hatred of the US. During a meeting in Caracas earlier this year, Mr Chavez, who heads an “anti-imperialist revolution”, joked with his Iranian counterpart about firing missiles at Washington.
Tehran also delivered recently the first of four oil tankers it is building for Venezuela after being awarded the $300 million contract. Venezuela has the world’s biggest proven oil reserves.
Jewish groups claim there has been an exodus during Mr Chavez’s reign. They calculate that the number of Jews has halved in the past 10 years to around 9,000. Mr Capriles, however, said last week he would look to de-politicise foreign policy, distancing the country from Russia and Iran in an effort to “benefit all Venezuelans…
“We are interested in countries that have democracies, that respect human rights, that we have an affinity with,” Mr Capriles said on the campaign trail. “What affinity do we have with Iran?”
Efraim Lapscher, vice-president of Venezuela’s Jewish umbrella organisation, said he expected Mr Capriles would also re-establish relations with Israel.
With a tense campaign drawing to a close, Mr Capriles made a speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters at a rally in Caracas last Sunday.
A day earlier, two leaders of parties backing him were killed by gunmen.
Mr Capriles — whose second surname, Radonski, is inherited from Polish great-grandparents who were killed at Treblinka concentration camp — has said he will win by a million votes.
He describes himself a centrist — pro-business and in favour of a strong welfare state.