Venezuela vote a critical test for divided nation

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“It’s a mature, democratic country where the institutions work, where we have one of the best electoral systems in the world,” Mr. Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace.

But he also said he hoped no one would try to use the vote to play a “destabilizing game.” If they do, he said, “we’ll be alert to neutralize them.”

His opponents mounted a noisy protest in Caracas and other major cities on Saturday night, beating pots and pans from the windows of their homes to show displeasure with Mr. Chavez — and also their hopes for change. Drivers on downtown streets honked horns, joining the din.

The 40-year-old Mr. Capriles, a wiry former governor affectionately called “Skinny” by supporters, infused the opposition with new optimism and opinion polls pointed to him giving Mr. Chavez his closest election.

Some recent polls gave Mr. Chavez a lead of about 10 percentage points, while others put the two candidates roughly even.

“Chavez is going to fight until his last breath. He doesn’t know how to do anything else,” said Antonio Padron, a bank employee backing the president.

Mr. Padron expressed optimism that the 58-year-old Mr. Chavez would win, noting the leader’s survival of a fight with cancer that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

But Mr. Padron predicted a close finish: “It’s a tough fight. The opposition has never been this strong.”

Mr. Chavez won the last presidential vote in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote.

A former army paratroop commander first elected in 1999, Chavez has presided over an oil boom and has spent billions of dollars on government social programs ranging from cash benefits for single mothers to free education.

But he has suffered declining support because of one of the world’s highest murder rates, 18 percent inflation, a deteriorating electrical grid, and a bloated government accused of endemic corruption and mismanagement.

While his support has slipped at home, Mr. Chavez also has seen his international influence ebb since he emerged in the mid-2000s as leader of a like-minded club of newly elected Latin American leftist presidents.

“I want to tell President Chavez, I want to tell him his cycle is over,” Mr. Capriles said at his final campaign rally Thursday.

Mr. Capriles says Mr. Chavez has stirred up hatred, hobbled the economy by expropriating private businesses and squandered oil wealth. He criticized Mr. Chavez’s preferential deals supplying oil to allies, including one that lets Cuba pay with the services of Cuban doctors.

“We aren’t going to finance the political model that exists in Cuba,” Mr. Capriles said in a TV interview last week, “but we aren’t going to break off relations with Cuba.”

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