Venezuela awaits David and Goliath contest

Heavy rain and overflowing drains marred Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s otherwise rapturous closing rally ahead of a close election on Sunday that will decide the fate of his socialist revolution and could rearrange the region’s balance of power.

Red-shirted supporters danced in downtown Caracas on Thursday night as shin-deep water filled with rubbish washed through the streets.

Mr Chávez, who claims to have recovered from cancer as he seeks another six-year term at Sunday’s vote, looked bloated and tired as he spoke from the podium in driving rain. But nonetheless he gave a trademark speech peppered with rousing military metaphors and historical references to his hero, Simón Bolívar.

“We’re going to give the bourgeoisie a beating,” bellowed the former tank commander. But in his next breath added: “Everyone get out to vote for the future, for life,” a refrain oft-repeated in recent speeches in which he has cautioned: “Nobody should drop their guard, nobody should believe that we’ve already won.”

In many ways this election is a reversal of roles from when Mr Chávez first won power in 1998. Then the 58-year-old leader was an outsider leading a grassroots campaign against a better financed and organised establishment.

Now that position has been assumed by 40-year-old opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who has criss-crossed the country in an energetic campaign that has even seen him hitch a ride on a fisherman’s boat to circumvent roadblocks set up by government supporters.

Pollsters agree that the result is too close to call as momentum has shifted towards Mr Capriles who, lacking Mr Chávez’s access to the Venezuelan state’s vast petro-revenues, has cast the vote as a contest between David and Goliath.

“You were, without a doubt, a great contender,” Mr Capriles said at his closing rally on Thursday. Opposition leaders say the vote, which will be held using encrypted computer systems, will be “free but not fair”.

At stake is more than the political future of Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves. Over the past decade, Mr Chávez has also forged a network of alliances among similarly leftist countries in the region – especially Cuba, which Caracas provides with up to $4bn of subsidised oil a year in return for military intelligence and doctors, who lead popular social programmes known as “missions”.

Mr Capriles, should he win, has said he would reconsider the oil deal, a big loss to Cuba which is short of hard currency. But the former state governor, who says he wants to emulate Brazil’s social democratic model, has struggled to convince Mr Chávez’s key support base among the poor that he would maintain the missions.

“Capriles just wants to privatise free health services. That might make them better, but you’ll have to pay,” shouted Daniel, a university student, between enthusiastic toots on a red plastic horn.

“Fourteen years of Chávez is not enough. ‘They’ had all the time in the world before – and what happened? Nothing. Poverty just got worse.”

The characterisation goes to the heart of both candidates’ campaigns. Mr Chávez has played on fears of a return to “neoliberalism” and even “civil war” if he loses.

By contrast, Mr Capriles has stressed reconciliation, inclusion and a “new dawn” – ironically, themes similar to Mr Chávez’s when he was first elected 14 years ago by voters fed up with an old order characterised by corruption and clientelism.

“I thank you infinitely for allowing me during this campaign to see the course we must take in Venezuela: that of light and not darkness, that of love and not hatred,” Mr Capriles said.

One sign that the opposition’s campaign has gained traction lately is how Mr Chávez has begun to respond to charges that his administration is inept. “Sure, I’ve made mistakes. Who doesn’t?” Mr Chávez said.

A loss would still see Mr Chávez control Congress and the Supreme Court, making a transition from his “Bolivarian Revolution” tricky. A victory for Mr Chávez, on the other hand, could see him deepen his revolution by further centralising power, as happened after the 2006 election, which he won with 63 per cent of the vote.

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