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Heir seeks election on Chavez's memory but challenger gains amid Venezuela's crime, shortages

  • 59dfdd906f20e20c2e0f6a706700fbab.jpg

    Venezuela's interim President Nicolas Maduro gives a thumbs up as Argentina's soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona sits behind him as they leave after paying their respects at the tomb of late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, April 12, 2013. Maduro, who served as Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, is running against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in Sunday's presidential election to replace Chavez who died on March 5. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) (The Associated Press)

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    Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles waves to supporters as he speaks with the media after playing a basketball game with friends in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, April 12, 2013. Capriles is running against ruling party candidate Nicolas Maduro in the April 14 presidential election. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano (The Associated Press)

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    Posters featuring Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez and interim President Nicolas Maduro hang on a pole at the 23 de Enero neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, April 12, 2013. Maduro,who served as Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, is running against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in Sunday's presidential election. AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) (The Associated Press)

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    An official checks a voting machine in preparation for Sunday's presidential election at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, April 12, 2013. Interim President Nicolas Maduro,who served as Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, is running against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in Sunday's vote.(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) (The Associated Press)

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    People walk behind a poster of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, April 12, 2013. Capriles is running against interim President Nicolas Maduro in Sunday's presidential election. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) (The Associated Press)

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 adored larger-than-life leader who chose him to carry on the messy, unfinished Chavista revolution.

That will mean inheriting 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.

"Chavez is unique in having survived with high popularity through years of stagflation," said Siobhan Morden, head of Latin American strategy for Jefferies LLC.

But 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.

Maduro made his campaign a paean to Chavez.

He followed his mentor's playbook of blaming many of Venezuela's woes on sabotage and subterfuge by "the extreme right," Colombian paramilitaries, U.S. putschists and other shadowy forces. Hard evidence is never provided. "Captured" suspects are never identified.

The government's media machine, meanwhile, provides a pervasive message aimed at keeping Chavistas on board.

Yadaira Nunez, a 43-year-old grandmother married to a volunteer firefighter, lives with three generations in a wooden shack in a squatters settlement outside the central city of Valencia, but she doesn't blame the government for worsening blackouts and food shortages.

"Well, that's also sabotage. You can't close your eyes to reality," she said. "What's the proof? That as elections near there's no flour. Look, my granddaughter doesn't have milk because we can't find milk anywhere."

And for many Venezuelans, it's enough that Chavez told them to elect Maduro — at least for now.

"To not vote for Maduro would be to betray him," Nunez said of Chavez. And if Maduro proves a failure? "We'll get rid of him. We'll get rid of him immediately."

The election winner will have the aid of the historically high oil prices that Chavez enjoyed during most of this rule. The windfall let Chavez spend $500 billion on social programs and trim the poverty rate from 50 percent to about 30 percent.

That came with a steep price, though.

State oil company PDVSA's debt reached $40 billion last year as Chavez ordered the company into food distribution and bankrolling social programs.

Critics say the government failed to reinvest in the oil industry, causing production and refining to slump. Oil revenues dropped from $5.6 billion five years ago to $3.8 billion in 2012. The country even imports 100,000 barrels a day of gasoline from the United States.

Neither Maduro nor Capriles possess the irrepressible charm of Chavez, who spent hours on television giving folksy speeches, and micro-managed by turning complaints from ordinary citizens into orders for Cabinet ministers that had to immediately be resolved.

"Maduro is a little boring. He puts on a good show, but then when he starts talking you want it to end quickly," said Lorena Franco, a 25-year-old nurse.

Capriles supporters turned out in the hundreds of thousands at his rallies, knowing he was a longshot but also believing Maduro won't be able to finish out even half of his six-year term.

"I think the people will turn on him," said Danais Trepiano, a 30-year-old mother.

She is typical of young, upper-middle-class Venezuelans who feel excluded and vilified. Trepiano's father had to close his leather bag-making business. She helps out by designing T-shirts and selling them online and has given up on finding a full-time paying job.

She went to private schools but can't afford to the same for her 6-year-old daughter. She attends a public school where Trepiano said she is brain-washed with Chavista propaganda.

"I told her 'I'm going to Capriles' march.' She said: 'But Chavez is the heart of the people. They told me at school.'"

Trepiano, who also holds Spanish citizenship, struggles with whether to stay in Venezuela.

"When I feel truly strangled, I'll leave," she said. "I'm sick of crime. I'm sick of not finding anything in the stores."

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Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Tacaraigua and Jorge Rueda in Caracas contributed to this report.