Venezuela's Capriles vows to help Colombian peace talks

CARACAS Mon Oct 1, 2012 6:14pm EDT

1 of 10. Venezuela's opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles talks to the media as he leaves from a news conference in Caracas October 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles pledged to help Colombia in its peace talks with rebels and distance himself from Iran should he defeat President Hugo Chavez in an increasingly tight race ahead of Sunday's election.

The government of neighboring Colombia is due to start talks with Marxist FARC guerrillas this month in Oslo to try to end five decades of conflict. Chavez's government, accused by Bogota of backing the rebels in the past, supports the talks.

That has led to speculation that an opposition victory in Venezuela on October 7 could damage prospects for peace in Colombia. But Capriles denied that was the case.

"A government led by us would accelerate the Colombia peace process. A progressive government in Venezuela will stop being a refuge for rebels, for armed groups," he told a news conference in Caracas on Monday.

"We have a government that is an accomplice of the Colombian guerrillas. That will change."

Capriles, who has mounted the strongest electoral challenge Chavez has faced during his 14 years in power, recently met Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota.

The opposition candidate also said that if he won he would demand the freedom of some 30 Venezuelans kidnapped in Colombia, and end any direct contacts with the rebels so as to not confuse the negotiations.

Among the half-a-dozen or so major local pollsters, most put Chavez ahead. But Capriles has been creeping up thanks to an energetic campaign, and two surveys give him a slight edge.

The 40-year-old governor, who would be Venezuela's youngest president, also said he would steer foreign relations away from Chavez's alliances with nations such as Iran and Belarus that the West views with suspicion.

"What do we have in common with Iran apart from producing oil? Or Belarus?" Capriles asked. "Isn't its president a dictator? You tell me! We honored (late Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi twice. Are those the relations Venezuelans want? No!"

Capriles said he would also try to sit down with Cuban President Raul Castro to review the presence of more than 40,000 Cuban workers who are in Venezuela in exchange for oil supplies.

"And I've told the Russian ambassador here that we are going to stop buying weapons from Russia," he added, referring to Chavez's multibillion-dollar arms purchases from Moscow.

WAXING NOSTALGIC

The 58-year-old socialist president has been stepping up his campaign in recent days despite still recovering from three cancer operations since June 2011.

Chavez held a rally on Monday in his hometown of Sabaneta, waxing nostalgic about how he used to sell papaya candies in the main square. He waved to old high school friends in the streets teeming with supporters.

"Is the bocce ball field still here? It's gone. And the cock fighting ring? Gone too," he said, amid a sea of red-shirted supporters clamoring for a glimpse of him.

"Now it's the era of the socialist arepa restaurants," he said, referring to state-run businesses that sell the country's staple "arepa" corn pancakes at a heavy discount.

He played up his humble roots, which have helped him maintain a strong emotional tie with the poor, and dismissed Capriles as a phony.

"He's trying to present himself as a man of the people when he's the son of the great bourgeoisie," he said.

Three pro-Capriles activists were shot and killed at a rally in Chavez's home state of Barinas over the weekend, underlining the potential for violence in a nation awash with guns. State prosecutors said three people would be charged in the shootings.

The father one of the slain activists said Chavez sympathizers had blocked a procession of cars containing Capriles supporters, then opened fired when they got out to negotiate.

Investors hope the more business-friendly Capriles will end a nationalization drive and dismantle a cumbersome system of currency and price controls.

Chavez has directed much of the OPEC member's oil revenue to social welfare projects, such as subsidized food stores and programs that make cash payments to poor families with children.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Brian Ellsworth and Mario Naranjo; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Xavier Briand)

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