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October 6, 2012
On Sunday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez faces his most serious election test in 14 years of power. Though he has easily beaten his adversaries in the past, Chavez now confronts a 40-year-old former governor who's been electrifying the crowds.
The stakes are high. If Chavez loses, it could mean the end of his socialist experiment in the oil-rich nation.
In speech after speech, Chavez is like the Chavez of old — bombastic, loud, defiant, with grand dreams about projecting Venezuelan influence worldwide.
He's the president who once called George Bush "the devil" in a United Nations speech. He's also using his alliances with Iran, Cuba and Russia to counter U.S. power. And he's sitting on the world's biggest oil reserves.
Now, Chavez is campaigning yet again, telling Venezuelans he'll deliver a bright future.
"When I say Chavez wins ... I am not the one who wins," Chavez said in one speech. "Chavez is the people."
The message is clear: A vote for Chavez is a vote for the people. But the Chavez of today is far different from the dashing former army colonel in the red beret who swept into power in 1998.
Venezuelans then were ready to overturn the old economic order. Chavez was young and energetic, his plans for a socialist fatherland held out hope.
Now, Chavez is slowed by a cancerous tumor he says was removed earlier this year. He looks bloated and older and walks gingerly. Polls show he also faces a growing opposition.
Enrique Capriles is a long-distance runner who on a recent day waded into big crowds in Caracas. He says he'll bring down rampant crime and reverse the government expropriations of businesses he says have damaged the economy.
"Judge for yourself who's going to bring change and who's become sick with power," Capriles says.
Political analyst Carlos Romero says the opposition has finally found a formula: a charismatic candidate who'll keep in place popular social programs while reversing state interventions.
"Capriles cannot be said to be a neoliberal candidate," Romero says. "He's been a populist."
Two polls show Capriles and Chavez in a rough tie, two others show Chavez well ahead. The key could be the many undecided voters. Juan Mijares is the No. 2 in the Capriles campaign.
"The undecided are deciding," Mijares says, "and the trends are that those people will break for Capriles."
On the surface, it's hard to see how that could happen in a big, bustling barrio like Petare. People here, long forgotten by successive governments, naturally gravitated to Chavez.
Campaign vans now blast Chavez's speeches and music, and big crowds form. Ismar Mota, a long-time resident who's campaigning for Chavez, says the president has redistributed oil wealth and improved people's lives. Mota says 14 years is not enough, though, and that Chavez needs more time to consolidate socialism.
But undoubtedly, some who once supported Chavez are now looking to Capriles. Standing at the door of her house, Maria Uribe says she worries about her 9-year-old son in the Venezuela of today.
"I worry about his future, explaining how the way things are going life is going to get harder and harder," she says.
The public schools are shoddy, she says, and the economy doesn't create many good jobs.
"The truth is that these elections are very important," she says. "The country needs change."