Saturday, September 29, 2012
Satellite launch stirs passions before Venezuela vote
By Daniel Wallis
CARACAS (Reuters) - A Venezuelan satellite will be launched on Friday in a move President Hugo Chavez says highlights the achievements of his self-styled revolution as he seeks re-election on October 7, but which his rival says underscores his neglect of problems closer to home.
As campaigning in the close race approaches its final week in South America's biggest oil exporter, both sides are making last-minute efforts to win over undecided voters and planning huge rallies next week.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles says Chavez is focused on spreading his socialist project around the world - and has done little to address the daily problems of Venezuelans such as crime.
The "Miranda Satellite," which will be launched from China, is a prime example of what he calls Chavez's grandiose plans. For the government, it is a symbol of sovereign pride.
"Tonight, we launch the satellite, ... This is the future, which is already here, and I'm sure on October 7 we are going to defend the future," Chavez told thousands of cheering supporters in the eastern city of Maturin.
"It's your future, young people, not mine. I've lived. ... Do you think the bourgeois would maintain the satellites? They'd sell them. They'd privatize them!"
Like the "Simon Bolivar Satellite" launched from China in 2008, officials say the new spacecraft will help the government monitor the environment, improve urban planning and even crack down on illegal mining and drug cultivation.
Both satellites were named after 19th-century independence heroes. Live footage of Friday's late-night launch is due to be beamed from China to big screens in Caracas' museum district, where officials were preparing for a street party.
In the run-up to previous elections, Chavez has often unveiled projects in an effort to impress voters. This time, his campaigning has been much less intense, partly because he has suffered two bouts of cancer since June 2011.
'CHAVEZ IS TIRED'
Chavez, 58, is warning that his "bourgeois" foe will scrap his social welfare programs, while Capriles wants to tap discontent over crime, unemployment and inefficient public services.
In a jab at the baseball-loving president, the opposition candidate held a rally on Thursday at the home stadium of Chavez's favourite team, Navegantes del Magallanes.
"The president is like a pitcher whose arm is tired ... . We need a new one," Capriles told the crowd in Carabobo state.
The latest figures from Venezuelan pollsters have been sharply divergent. Most of the best-known polls show Chavez ahead, but Capriles' numbers have been inching up and he has a small lead in two surveys. Polls are notoriously controversial in Venezuela and public opinion shifts quickly.
Addressing discontent among some of his supporters, Chavez said in Maturin: "Some people might be unhappy because of failures by our government. 'They didn't fix the road. The power went off. The water went off. I couldn't find a job.'
"Well, that may be true in some cases and I take the responsibility ... one of my pledges is for greater efficiency in the management of the government."
Investors expect Capriles to end a five-year nationalization drive if he wins, and reduce state intervention in the economy.
Chavez has vowed to strengthen his oil-financed socialism if he gets six more years in office. That will likely mean new confrontations with the private sector, and more support for the president's leftist allies around the region.
Capriles says he believes Chavez is willing to step down if he loses on October 7. But some members of the opposition fear the president could do anything to stay in power, from rigging the vote to sending armed supporters into the street.
There were charges in previous elections of small-scale fraud at remote polling stations, but no evidence of widespread, centralized vote-rigging.
Venezuela's widely traded debt has risen as Capriles' poll numbers have inched up. The price of its Global 2027 bond has climbed by more than 3.5 percent in the past week alone.
Wall Street would like a more business-friendly leader in Venezuela, although Chavez's government has never given any sign of defaulting on the country's debts.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Marianna Parraga; Editing by Peter Cooney)