By Philip Sherwell, Telegraph, UK
Soaked by rain and perspiration, Henrique Capriles retreated reluctantly inside his campaign bus as the horn-blowing, flag-waving convoy crept through the pot-holed streets of the slums of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second city.
A late evening tropical thunderstorm had finally forced him from his place atop a pick-up truck after a typical 12-hour day of rapturous rallies and rock-star receptions for the dashing 40-year-old opposition leader.
[ad#GAPosts234x60]Undeterred by the downpour, the exuberant crowds outside chanted his name as firecrackers erupted in the pitch-darkness that is graphic testimony to the failure of the country with the world’s largest oil reserves to deliver electricity to its own poor.
In Venezuela’s presidential elections on Sunday, Mr Capriles faces one of the toughest challenges in global politics – defeating Hugo Chavez.
The socialist autocrat dominates the airwaves and is tapping the state’s deep oil coffers to fund his campaign and “buy” votes with a calculated explosion of investment in populist social programme in the weeks before the vote.
But despite its energy riches, the country is mired in debt and unemployment as state-imposed price and exchange rate controls shackle the economy. And violent crime is so endemic that Caracas has the unenviable ranking of the murder capital of the world.
Now, with the long-divided opposition united for the first time behind a charismatic state governor who is already a veteran of Venezuela’s rough-and-tumble politics despite his youthful years, President Chavez is facing his most serious competition at the ballot box since he came to power in 1998.
At stake is the grip on power of an anti-Western firebrand who embraces Iran and China and is seeking to use the nation’s oil wealth to export his dream of a socialist revolution across Latin America.
It is a “David and Goliath” battle, Mr Capriles told The Sunday Telegraph during a wide-ranging interview in which he pledged a number of radical breaks from the policies of the former paratrooper officer know by his fervent supporters as “El Comandante”.
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