September 28, 2012 / 10:16 PM / 5 years ago

Satellite launch stirs passions before Venezuela vote

4 Min Read

* Chavez gov't sees satellite as symbol of sovereignty

* Opposition says he has neglected day-to-day problems

* Venezuelans to vote in Oct. 7 presidential election

By Daniel Wallis

CARACAS, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Venezuela will launch its second satellite on Friday in a move President Hugo Chavez says highlights the achievements of his self-styled revolution ahead of an election, but which his rival says underscores his neglect of problems closer to home.

It is a close race with just nine days to go before the vote in South America's biggest oil exporter. Both sides are planning huge rallies next week to close their campaigns, as well as making last-ditch efforts to win over undecided voters.

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.

"It is a reaffirmation of our path towards independence, in all areas of knowledge," Science Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Twitter. "The rancid bourgeois (opposition) dismiss it and humiliate the workers ... who designed and built it. How sad!"

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 gearing up for a street party.

In the run-up to previous elections, Chavez has often unveiled many 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 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 favorite team, Los Navegantes del Magallanes.

"The president is like a pitcher whose arm is tired ... . We need a new one," Capriles told the cheering crowd in Carabobo state.

The latest surveys by Venezuelan pollsters have been sharply divergent. Most of the best-known polls show Chavez ahead, but Capriles' numbers have been creeping up. Polls are notoriously controversial in Venezuela and public opinion shifts quickly.

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 another six years in office. That is likely to mean fresh confrontation 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 Oct. 7. But some radical 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.

During previous elections there have been plenty of accusations of small-scale fraud at remote polling stations - but no evidence of widespread, centralized rigging.

Venezuela's widely traded debt has risen as Capriles' poll numbers have inched up. Its popular Global 2027 bond has climbed by more than 3.5 percent in the last 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.

* To follow us on Twitter: @ReutersVzla

*(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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