CARACAS, Venezuela – The Venezuelan opposition's candidate in next month's presidential election ridiculed President Hugo Chavez on Monday for claiming to pursue socialist policies, and pledged to use the country's oil wealth more effectively if elected.
Henrique Capriles told supporters that nearly 14 years under the fiercely anti-capitalist Chavez have resulted in Venezuela having violence-plagued prisons, crumbling hospitals and one of the world's highest murder rates.
"If they're socialists, I'm Marxist-Leninist, because I invite them to compare who is doing more on the social front and who is using resources to solve the problems of our people, not to save other countries," Capriles said during a speech in which he laid out his plans if he wins the Oct. 7 vote.
"This government imports gasoline from the United States and says it fights against imperialism. It imports rice from the U.S. and it says that it has gained its independence," he told a cheering crowd.
Capriles pledged to improve police forces to combat crime, which according to polls is a top concern for Venezuelans. He also said he would provide people with more job opportunities as well as better electricity and water services after years of decaying infrastructure.
The opposition candidate accused Chavez of wasting Venezuela's oil riches through fuel supply deals with allied nations such as Cuba and Nicaragua that involve long-term, low-interest financing. "We aren't going to give away a single drop more of our oil," he said.
Chavez disputes that characterization of his foreign oil deals and says Venezuela has reached mutually beneficial oil deals with its allies during his presidency.
Speaking on state television Monday, the 58-year-old president called the 40-year-old Capriles "a rich kid disguising himself as poor, as a boy from the barrio."
The leftist Chavez has regularly accused his rival of representing the interests of the wealthy, but Capriles describes his views as center-left and says he would maintain social programs for the poor while also working with the private sector to create jobs.
Capriles has strongly criticized government seizures of private businesses during Chavez's presidency.
The president has maintained a lead in most recent polls, but one survey last month put the two candidates roughly even in a race that is expected to be the toughest challenge of Chavez's career. After battling cancer in the past year, Chavez says he is free of the illness as he seeks another six-year term.
Trying to shore up support among poor Venezuelans, Chavez has also increased spending on public housing and other social programs.
Chavez has accused Capriles of having a hidden agenda to impose right-wing policies, and reiterated claims on Sunday that such policies could lead to "a civil war." He said that even the wealthy, who are regular targets of his criticism, ought to have an interest in supporting him.
"To the families that have their riches, that own their nice homes, their good cars, with their great apartments on the beach, who like to travel abroad on holidays: Is a civil war convenient for them? Not at all. It's only convenient for the extreme fascist right," the president told supporters. "Even the rich guys, the wealthy families who want tranquility ... Chavez guarantees you peace, stability."
Capriles has sought to counter such claims by saying that his proposals would bring stability and that he has no plans to take away the government's social programs for the poor.
Among his pledges on Monday, Capriles said he would strive to bring down Venezuela's inflation rate, which at 18.1 percent is the highest in Latin America.
He also said he would raise the minimum wage to the equivalent of $581 a month from the current $476.
As for the country's key oil industry, Capriles pledged to take steps to ensure better maintenance and safety measures. He referred to the powerful Aug. 25 explosion at Venezuela's Amuay oil refinery, which killed at least 42 people.
"Venezuelans still don't know the causes of this accident," Capriles said. "The question all of us are asking is: Under this government, will we ever know what happened there?"
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao