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Venezuela's choice: Chavez heir or fresh start

By Frank Bajak

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 14 2013 9:30 a.m. MDT

A presidential guard soldier shows his finger marked with ink after voting in the presidential election at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, April 14, 2013. Interim President Nicolas Maduro, who served as the late Hugo Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, is running against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Voters who kept Hugo Chavez in office for 14 years were deciding Sunday whether to elect the devoted lieutenant he chose to carry on the revolution that endeared him to the poor but that many Venezuelans believe is ruining the nation.

Across Caracas, trucks blaring bugle calls awoke Venezuelans long before dawn in the ruling socialists' traditional election day get-out-the-vote tactic. This time, they also boomed Chavez's voice singing the national anthem.

Chosen successor Nicolas Maduro adopted the late leader's tactics, topics and even tone of voice as he ran a campaign based that often resembled a religious homage to the man he called "the redeemer of the Americas," whose death of cancer on March 5 set off a national outpouring of grief.

Chavez's longtime Chavez foreign minister pinned his hopes on the immense loyalty for his boss among millions of poor beneficiaries of a socialist government's largesse and the heft of a state apparatus that Chavez skillfully consolidated.

The governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela deployed a well-worn get-out-the-vote machine spearheaded by loyal state employees. It also enjoyed a pervasive state media apparatus as part of a near monopoly on institutional power.

Challenger Henrique Capriles' aides accused Chavista loyalists in the judiciary of putting them at glaring disadvantage by impoverishing the campaign and opposition broadcast media by targeting them with unwarranted fines and prosecutions.

Capriles' main campaign weapon was simply to point out "the incompetence of the state," as he put it to reporters Saturday night.

Maduro, 50, was still favored, but his early big lead in opinion polls halved over the past two weeks in a country struggling with the legacy of Chavez's management of the world's largest oil reserves. Millions of Venezuelans were lifted out of poverty under Chavez, but many also believe that his confederates not only squandered but also plundered much of the $1 trillion in oil revenues during his time in office.

People are fed up with chronic power outages, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages and rampant crime. Venezuela has among the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates.

"We can't continue to believe in messiahs," said Jose Romero, a 48-year-old industrial engineer who voted for Capriles in the central city of Valencia. "This country has learned a lot and today we know that one person can't fix everything."

But in the Chavista stronghold of Petare outside Caracas, the Maduro vote was strong. Maria Velasquez, 48, who works in a government soup kitchen that feeds 200 people, said she was voting for Chavez's man "because that is what my comandante ordered."

Reynaldo Ramos, a 60-year-old construction worker, said he "voted for Chavez" before correcting himself and saying he chose Maduro. But he could not seem to get his beloved leader out of his mind.

"We must always vote for Chavez because he always does what's best for the people and we're going to continue on this path," said Ramos, who added that the government helped him get work on the subway system and helps pay his grandchildren's school costs.

Capriles is a 40-year-old state governor who lost to Chavez in October's presidential election by a nearly 11-point margin, the best showing ever by a challenger to the longtime president.

He showed Maduro none of the respect he had accorded Chavez. Maduro hit back hard, at one point calling Capriles' backers "heirs of Hitler." It was an odd accusation considering that Capriles is the grandson of Holocaust survivors from Poland.

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