Capriles faces Chavez's ghost in Venezuela vote

CARACAS, Venezuela - Henrique Capriles lost his last presidential bid to Hugo Chavez, and as he prepares for Venezuela's April 14 elections, his main rival appears to be the ghost of the late leader.

Capriles, 40, is the candidate of the unified opposition in the race to succeed Chavez. He is running against former bus driver, ex-foreign minister and acting President Nicolas Maduro, the hand-picked successor of the "comandante."

Campaigning officially begins on April 2, but the candidates have already started courting votes in a highly confrontational pre-campaign.

The opposition is confident of a win.

"This is the biggest chance to defeat them in 15 years," campaign coordinator Carlos Ocariz told AFP.

"We know it will be difficult, but we have an excellent candidate, and Maduro has steered the country into an authentic disaster."

Chavez overwhelmed Venezuela's political scene between 1999, when he took office, and March 5, when he died of cancer while in office.

Capriles ran a positive campaign against Chavez ahead of last October's presidential elections, even as the leftist president slammed him as a pampered member of the "rancid oligarchy" taking orders from Washington.

But with Chavez gone, the gloves are off -- and Capriles is punching Maduro with all he's got.

Opposition leaders see Maduro, 50, as a lightweight version of the charismatic and popular Chavez, believing he can be blamed for February's devaluation of the bolivar currency by 32 percent, and other unpopular moves.

But in death, Chavez has become almost as powerful as in life. He is deified by his leftist supporters, who are banking on a sympathy vote that will lift Maduro to the presidency.

"This will be a very strange and difficult election and campaign for the opposition," said political analyst Tulio Hernandez. "The competition will not really be between Maduro and Capriles, but rather between Chavez's will and Capriles."

Maduro and the ruling socialists are presenting Chavez's life, legacy and accomplishments in quasi-religious terms, said sociologist Marycleen Steling, with plenty of state resources at their disposal to do so.

The late president "is being portrayed as a mythical figure, like an epic warrior and a holy being," said Steling.

Maduro has proclaimed himself an "apostle" of Chavez, and described his mentor as the "Christ redeemer of the poor," words that have resonance in this Catholic nation during the Easter season.

Maduro has visited sites closely associated with Chavez, reads his speeches in public, and constantly drops his name.

The private Venezuelan pollster Hinterlaces said Tuesday that Maduro currently has an 18-point lead over Capriles. That's even bigger than in the last poll, published weeks before Chavez lost his two-year battle with cancer.

Capriles, who governs Miranda state, lost to Chavez in October by 11 points -- a wide margin, but the best showing ever against the leftist leader.

In his visits around Venezuela, Capriles is accusing Maduro of being an "incompetent" leader, a "liar" with a hollow message and a coward who refuses to engage in a debate.

Capriles has also vowed to stop sending oil to Cuba, cutting off the 130,000 barrels of oil the communist island gets every day from Venezuela at a subsidized price. The move would cripple Cuba's battered economy.

"As long as there is a single Venezuelan enduring hunger, not a single drop of oil will be given away," Capriles said. "And that goes for you, Nicolas, who spent the last six years traveling around the world giving away money."

The opposition says that Maduro is hiding behind Chavez's legacy. One monitoring website claimed he has mentioned Chavez's name 4,500 times since the late leader's death.

Maduro's response: "That is too little, I should have named him a million times, I should have named him as many times as I think about him."

On Friday, Maduro inaugurated a highway named after the late president, then drove a red bus plastered with pictures of Chavez. -