May 22, 2013
Venezuela's Chávez fights Capriles in re-election bid
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez faces the toughest election of his 14-year rule on Sunday in a vote pitting his charisma and oil-financed largesse against challenger Henrique Capriles' promise of jobs, safer streets and an end to cronyism.
Chávez, 58, staged a remarkable comeback from cancer this year and wants a new six-year term to consolidate his self-styled socialist revolution in the OPEC nation.
Capriles, a boyish 40-year-old state governor, has run a marathon eight-month campaign of house-by-house visits that have galvanized the historically fractured opposition and set up its best shot at the presidency since Chávez's election in 1998.
Defeat for Chávez would defenestrate Latin America's leader of anti-US sentiment while potentially boosting oil companies' access to the world's largest crude reserves.
Victory would allow Chávez to continue a wave of nationalizations and consolidate control over the economy, though a recurrence of his cancer would weaken his leadership and possibly give the opposition another chance.
In torrential rain, red-shirted supporters of the president filled much of downtown Caracas on Thursday for his final rally.
"Chávez will not fail the Venezuelan people," the president said, soaked to the skin in a dark raincoat, on a stage before a sea of fans. "You know that my loyalty to the people almost brought me to the point of death. This is my path."
The former military officer, who survived a short-lived coup in 2002, has developed a near cult-like following by casting himself as a messianic reincarnation of 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar while pushing billions of dollars in oil revenue into social programs.
Most best-known pollsters put Chávez in front. But two have Capriles just ahead, and his numbers have edged up in others.
The opposition leader has had more momentum in the final days of the campaign and he is confidently predicting victory.
"The time has come to leave the past behind," the opposition leader told a cheering crowd on Thursday, wrapping up a grueling months-long series of rallies across the country.
The vote is also a cliffhanger for other left-wing governments in the region, from Cuba to Ecuador, who depend on Chávez's discounted oil sales and generous financial assistance.