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Venezuela's choice: Chavez heir or fresh start

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.

"Capriles ran a remarkable campaign that shows he has creativity, tenacity and disposition to play political hardball," said David Smilde, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

At his campaign rallies, Capriles would read out a list of unfinished road, bridge and rail projects. Then he asked people what goods were scarce on store shelves. The opposition contends Chavez looted the treasury last year to buy re-election with government largesse. It also complains about the steady flow of cut-rate oil to Cuba, which Capriles says will end if he is elected.

Venezuela's $30 billion fiscal deficit accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Maduro, a former union activist and bus driver with close ties to Cuba's leaders, constantly alleged that Capriles was conspiring with U.S. putschists to destabilize Venezuela and even suggested Washington had infected Chavez with the cancer that killed him.

He focused his campaign message on his mentor: "I am Chavez. We are all Chavez" and promised to expand anti-poverty programs.

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank said Maduro campaigned "ineptly," trying too hard to "replay the Chavez script" and alienating moderate Chavistas.

Whoever wins Sunday will face no end of hard choices.

Many factories operate at half capacity because strict currency controls make it hard for them to pay for imported parts and materials. Business leaders say some companies are on verging on bankruptcy because they are unable to extend lines of credit with foreign suppliers.

Chavez imposed currency controls a decade ago trying to stem capital flight as his government expropriated large land parcels and dozens of businesses. Now, dollars sell on the black market at three times the official exchange rate and Maduro has had to devalue Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, twice this year.

Meanwhile, consumers grumble that stores are short of milk, butter, corn flour and other staples. The government blames hoarding, while the opposition points at the price controls imposed by Chavez in an attempt to bring down double-digit inflation.

A 40-year-old lawyer who sometimes works with the government said as he walked with his wife and two small children to the polls in central Caracas that he was fed up and voting for Capriles.

"But I can't say that openly because I could lose work," said the man, who would only give his first name, Marcelino.

"But we can't have fear," his wife, Lisette Ruiz, told him. "If Maduro wins everything is going to get worse."

Capriles said he will reverse land expropriations, which he says have ruined many farms and forced Venezuela to import food after previously being a net exporter of beef, rice, coffee and other foods. But even Capriles said currency and price controls cannot be immediately scrapped without triggering a disastrous run on the bolivar.

High international oil prices remain a boon for Venezuela, underpinning its economy. Chavez spent $500 billion to bolster social programs, trimming the poverty rate from 50 percent to about 30 percent.

But critics say the government has misused the oil industry, ordering the state oil company PDVSA into food distribution and financing of social programs while neglecting needed investment, causing production and refining to drop.

PDVSA's debt climbed to $40 billion last year and the country even has been importing 100,000 barrels a day of gasoline from the United States.

Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Vivian Sequera in Valencia, Venezuela contributed to this report.