Pro-Chávez Venezuelans mark coup anniversary on eve of election

CARACAS (Reuters) – Hugo Chávez loyalists yesterday on the eve of a presidential vote celebrated across Venezuela a milestone in the late leader’s socialist revolution, irking the opposition that complained of a campaign tipped in favour of the government.

Yesterday marked the 11th anniversary of Chávez’s return to power after a two-day coup tacitly backed by the United States. The event galvanized support for the former paratrooper and prompted him to push ahead with increasingly radical policies that further polarized Venezuela.

Venezuelan state television broadcast a barrage of programmes glorifying Chávez that portrayed the opposition candidate in today’s election, Henrique Capriles, as the political heir of a “right-wing oligarchy” that orchestrated the 2002 coup.

Pro-Chávez militias were also planning to commemorate the failed coup in a rough Caracas neighbourhood, an event that was expected to double as an unofficial rally for government candidate Nicolás Maduro despite a ban on formal campaigning in the final two days before the vote.

Frustrated by what it sees as an unfair use of state funds to buoy Maduro’s candidacy, the opposition lodged a formal complaint with the electoral authority alleging that state TV channel Venezolana de Television (VTV) was violating election laws by broadcasting “biased political content.”

“It is unacceptable that an official channel breaks the rules,” Capriles’ campaign team said in a statement that called on election authorities to take immediate action against VTV.

In its complaint, the opposition also alleged that Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona had flouted Venezuelan election laws by publicly endorsing Maduro, who is favoured to win today. Maradona, who is well-known for his leftist politics and was close to Chávez, flew in on Thursday to join Maduro in his final campaign rally and spent much of Friday by his side.

A representative from Venezuela’s Election Council said it had not commented on the opposition complaint.
Meanwhile, VTV broadcast live footage of Foreign Minister Elias Jaua touring an apparently abandoned construction site of an athletic complex in Miranda, the state that the sports-loving Capriles governs, warning viewers that only a Maduro victory could ensure prosperity for all Venezuelans.
“This is another white elephant,” said Jaua, who previously served as Chávez’s vice president. “Tomorrow is a historical day in which we’ll vote to strengthen democracy and our revolution.”

After formal campaigning came to a close on Thursday night, the 40-year-old Capriles relaxed the next day by playing basketball in Petare, the largest slum in Caracas. He has campaigned on an image of youth and energy, almost always sporting a Venezuela baseball cap.

The campaign to succeed Chávez, who died on March 5 after a two-year battle with cancer, has been especially acrimonious, with both sides spouting harsh language and personal insults.

At stake is control of the world’s largest oil reserves, economic aid to a host of left-leaning governments in Latin America, and the future of what Chávez called “21st century socialism,” a mix of hard-left politics, heavy government spending on the poor and state control over the economy.

The Maduro camp has relentlessly accused Capriles of being a spoiled rich kid who plans to dismantle the oil-funded social welfare programs that made Chávez a hero to the poor, a claim the opposition has repeatedly denied.

For his part, Capriles has described Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, as a faint echo of Chávez and a political novice without a coherent plan to address problems such as rampant violent crime, high inflation and a slowing economy.

To be sure, both candidates have offered few specifics on policies they would adopt as president, leaving many Venezuelans to lament the lack of a serious political debate.

“We haven’t talked seriously about the grave problems in our economy. We don’t really know how we are going to solve the crime problem. We haven’t discussed the militia, education, or our crumbling infrastructure,” wrote Juan Nagel, a contributor to the Caracas Chronicles, a prominent Venezuelan political blog that backs the opposition.

Polls open today at 6 am and voting will run until 6 pm, though it could drag on later if there are still lines. Results are expected tonight.

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