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Lead narrows for Chavez’s heir on the eve of the elections in Venezuela
CARACAS, Venezuela — Nicolas Maduro hopes to ride a tide of grief into Venezuela's special presidential election Sunday and win voters' endorsement to succeed the late Hugo Chavez, the divisive larger-than-life leader who chose him to carry on the messy, unfinished Chavista revolution.
That will mean inheriting both a loyal following among the poor and multiple problems left behind by Chavez, troubles that have been harped on by opposition challenger Henrique Capriles.
Although he's still favored, Maduro's early big lead in opinion polls sharply narrowed in the past week as Venezuelans grappled with a litany of woes many blame on Chavez's mismanagement of the economy and infrastructure: chronic power outages, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages. Add to that rampant crime — Venezuela has among the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates.
Maduro, a former union activist with close ties to Cuba's leaders who was Chavez's longtime foreign minister, hinted at feeling overwhelmed during his closing campaign speech to hundreds of thousands of red-shirted faithful Thursday.
"I need your support. This job that Chavez left me is very difficult," said Maduro, who became acting president after Chavez succumbed to cancer March 5. "This business of being president and leader of a revolution is a pain in the neck."
Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who lost to Chavez in October's regular presidential election, hammered away at the ruling socialists' record of unfulfilled promises as he crisscrossed Venezuela. His campaign libretto included reading aloud a list of unfinished road, bridge and rail projects before asking what goods were scarce on store shelves.
Maduro, 50, hewed to a simple message, a theme of the October presidential campaign: "I am Chavez. We are all Chavez." He promised to expand a myriad of anti-poverty programs created by the man he called the "Jesus Christ of Latin America" and funded by $1 trillion in oil revenues during Chavez's 14-year rule.
His campaign mobilized a state bureaucracy of nearly 2.7 million workers that was built up by Chavez while he cemented a near-monopoly on power, using loyalists in the judiciary to intimidate and diminish the opposition, particularly its broadcast media.
There are no easy answers for the troubles besetting Venezuela even though the country has the world's largest oil reserves.
Many factories in the heartland operate at half capacity because strict currency controls leave them short of the hard currency needed to pay for imports. Business leaders say some companies are on the verge of bankruptcy, unable to extend lines of credit with suppliers abroad.
Chavez imposed currency controls a decade ago to stem capital flight as he expropriated large land parcels and dozens of private businesses. But the restrictions have backfired. In a roaring black market, dollars sell at three times the official exchange rate and Maduro has already devalued Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, twice this year.
The government blames shortages of milk, butter, corn flour and other staples on hoarding. The opposition points at the price controls imposed by Chavez in an attempt to cool double-digit inflation.
Siobhan Morden, head of Latin American strategy for Jefferies LLC, said Venezuela risks hitting economic stagnation and Maduro's options are limited outside an ideological shift. For instance, she said the government has resisted issuing new foreign bonds to raise capital.
Maduro's "sympathy votes will fade" eventually, Morden said. "Can he survive a six-year term with stagflation? If he feels he has to grow the economy, what will he do given the ideological constraints?"
Capriles said he will reverse land expropriations, which he said have ruined some farms and turned Venezuela into a net importer of food, including beef and coffee.
But even Capriles said currency and price controls cannot be immediately scrapped without triggering a disastrous run on the bolivar. As a way of immediately injecting dollars into the economy, he proposes ending the shipment of cut-rate oil to Cuba.
He said he would also re-establish close ties with the United States, which Chavez has vilified since a 2002 coup attempt that Washington initially endorsed.
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