Fernando Llano/AP
A mural of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez popping a wheelie, part of a series by art group Otro Beta in the run-up to the nation's presidential election.

A Venezuelan art group tries to win youth votes for Chávez

There are close to 2 million newly registered voters, mostly under 20 years old, so a grassroots art collective is giving Chávez a fresh look for election day with murals depicting him boxing and popping wheelies.

The dueling campaigns of President Hugo Chávez and challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski have led the candidates to every corner of Venezuela; in President Chávez's case even the basketball court.

The Otra Beta campaign, a grassroots art movement, has given the 58-year-old incumbent and his trademark red fatigues a fresh look for Election Day. Beyond rallies and motorcades, Chávez dunks, Chávez boxes, and Chávez raps in murals across Caracas. Chávez is otra beta.

"Beta is a word said in the barrios, the working class neighborhoods," says Carlos Zerpa, director of the art collective Erejcito Liberacion Comunicional, which designed a spray-painted image of El Comandante Chávez rapping in the Sabana Grande and Petare neighborhoods of Caracas. "[Beta] is an idea, a thing, something different," Mr. Zerpa says.

What’s largely different about Otra Beta’s approach is who it targets: Venezuelan youth. There are close to 2 million newly registered voters in Venezuela since its last parliamentary election in 2010, the majority of which are first time voters between the ages of 18 and 20, according to Ángel Álvarez, a data analyst and political science professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela.

"[The youth vote] is incredibly important in this election," says Mr. Álvarez.

The president depicted doing wheelies on a motorcycle certainly isn't typical, but campaigns elsewhere, such as ‘Rock the Vote’ in the US, have used musicians and artists to inspire young voters. Otra Beta focuses on urban youth, primarily in poor Caracas suburbs, encouraging them to vote for Chávez to improve their quality of life.

The campaign slogan reads, "With Chávez, otra beta is possible."

What's possible?

Otra Beta was created last year by a consortium of art collectives called Redada.

"We wanted to create an image that’s Chávista (pro government), but not so [typical] Chávista," says Iskra Moreno, whose collective, Alpargatas Rebeldes, forms part of Redada. We wanted "to show you don't have to wear a red shirt, or work for the government to support Chávez," Ms. Moreno says. 

The campaign hosts rap concerts, art workshops, basketball games, even motorcycle-wheelie contests to celebrate urban culture and the Chávez presidency.

Miguel 'Sico' Arena, an organizer, explains, "We work to show what's possible through the revolution."

Young votes

Since the massive student protests in 2007 over the closure of RCTV, one of Venezuela's most popular private television stations, and the proposed constitutional reform that would have abolished term limits among other sweeping changes, Venezuelan youth have played a prominent role in politics says Pedro Benítez, a historian and an economics professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), and public policy coordinator for the opposition party MUD.

In his closing campaign speech on Thursday, Chávez acknowledged errors in his presidency, and assured his supporters that he "would not fail Venezuela’s youth" if reelected.

"Capriles' age [40] and personality … helps him connect with youth,” says Mr. Benítez. "It’s similar to what happened when Chávez first ran in 1998, at 43, after the presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez," says Benítez.  

Former President Pérez, who still lingered in the minds of Venezuelans after his impeachment, was nearing his 70s and spent over nine years in office by the time Chávez first campaigned for president.

Mr. Arena, who goes by Sico, and other Beta campaigners clarify, however, that they are not trying to make the president – who after almost 14 years in office is seeking another six year term – come off younger than he is.

"The media says that we're trying to rejuvenate Chávez, we're not," says Sico. "We're showing that all youth support Chávez: the hair dresser, the metro sexual…."

Sico says, "We show that all of us [Venezuelan youth] can bring about the revolution."

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