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Venezuela votes to choose Chávez successor

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelans flocked to the polls Sunday to pick late leader Hugo Chávez’s successor, choosing between the handpicked heir of his socialist revolution and an opponent vowing change in the divided nation.

After a brief and bitter campaign, supporters of acting President Nicolas Maduro played military-style bugles to wake up people before dawn to vote in an election pitting him against opposition rival Henrique Capriles.

Maduro is widely expected to win the right to complete the new six-year term Chávez won in October, promising to continue oil-funded policies that cut poverty from 50 to 29 percent with popular health, education and food programs.

But Capriles, the loser in October polls, hopes discontent over the nation’s soaring murder rate, chronic food shortages, high inflation and regular power outages will give him an upset victory after 14 years under Chávez.

Before dying last month, the late leader endorsed Maduro as his successor. Maduro has since cast himself as Chávez’s “son” and sought to elevate his late mentor as a saint-like figure, calling him “Christ the redeemer of the poor.”

The 50-year-old former foreign minister pumped his fist as a crowd cheered him on after he stepped out of a black SUV to vote at a Caracas polling station, accompanied by his wife, former attorney general Cilia Flores.

Before placing his electronic vote’s receipt in a box, he looked up at the sky and held his hands in prayer.

“When I voted, I voted for his memory,” said Maduro, who was mocked by the opposition during the campaign for saying Chávez’s spirit visited him in the form of a bird. “I gave my vote to this little bird that is flying freely. I voted for him.”

Maduro, who was accused of exploiting Chávez’s death for political gain, said he would await the election results in the military barracks where the former colonel was laid to rest.

Capriles voted in an upper-class neighborhood, kissing a statue of the Virgin Mary after voting and urging Venezuelans to report any election abuses.

“What we want is for this country to have a true democracy, a democracy for all, a country where we can all exercise our rights without the possibility of any reprisal,” he said.

The 40-year-old state governor accused the government of sending text messages to civil servants to pressure them to vote for Maduro. During the campaign, he said Maduro unfairly used state resources to his advantage.

From Venezuela’s Amazon region to the Caribbean coast and the capital’s hillside slums, voters cast ballots to decide the future of a nation sitting on the world’s biggest proven oil reserves.

At the school where Chávez used to vote in the poor January 23 neighborhood, some voters hailed his legacy.

“The commitment to the revolution is very strong,” said Denis Oropeza, 33, a museum employee voting there as a truck played a recording of Chávez asking Venezuelans to vote for Maduro before cancer took his life.

Later, two of Chávez’s daughters voted at the school and were applauded by the crowd. People chanted “Chávez lives! The struggle goes on!”

Across town, in a neighborhood known as a Capriles bastion, voters said they were fed up with violence that left 16,000 people dead last year and a weak economy that has people struggling to find butter and milk in grocery stores.

“I want change because the situation is not good. There’s no security, the country is divided in two,” said Pietro Bellacicco, 75, a retired agricultural worker.

Polling stations began to close at 2230 GMT but people will be allowed to vote as long as lines exist.

Chávez named Maduro – a former bus driver and union activist who rose to foreign minister and vice president – as his political heir in December before undergoing a final round of cancer surgery. He died on March 5 aged 58.

Maduro and Capriles engaged in an acrimonious campaign marked by insults, government allegations of assassination plots against the acting leader and the virtual beatification of Chávez.

Maduro called his rival a “little bourgeois,” while Capriles derided the tall, broad-shouldered acting president as a “bull-chicken.”

Capriles avoided criticizing Chávez, however, pledging to maintain his social “missions.” He lost to Chávez by 11 points in the Oct. 7 presidential election – the opposition’s best ever showing against him.

But he blamed the government for the nation’s economic woes and vowed to cut the “gift” to Cuba – a deal in which Caracas ships 100,000 barrels of oil per day while Havana sends doctors and other experts to Venezuela.

Opinion polls gave Maduro a lead of 10-20 points, though the last survey conducted by Datanalisis last week gave him a 9.7-point edge. The winner will be sworn in on Friday.

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