CARACAS (Reuters) - Presidential candidates Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles have begun Venezuela’s election race with scathing personal attacks even as mourners still file past Hugo Chavez’s coffin.
Maduro, who was sworn in as acting president after Chavez died of cancer last week, is seen as favorite to win the April 14 election, bolstered by an oil-financed state apparatus and a wave of public sympathy over Chavez’s death.
“I am not Chavez, but I am his son,” Maduro told thousands of cheering, red-clad supporters as he formally presented his candidacy to the election board on Monday.
“I am you, a worker. You and I are Chavez, workers and soldiers of the fatherland,” the former bus driver and union activist added after the crowd’s emotions were whipped up by recordings of Chavez singing the national anthem.
Thumbing his nose at detractors who scoff at his qualifications, Maduro arrived driving a white bus, waving to supporters. His rally congested downtown, and Capriles sent aides to present his papers rather than going personally.
Chavez made clear before his fourth and last cancer operation in December that he wanted Maduro, his vice president and former foreign minister, to be his Socialist Party’s candidate to succeed him if he died.
Maduro has vowed to continue the radical policies of Chavez’s 14-year rule in the South American OPEC nation, including the popular use of vast oil revenues for social programs. But Capriles is promising a tough fight.
“Nicolas, I‘m not going to give you a free passage ... you are not Chavez,” Capriles said in a combative speech late on Sunday. He also accused Maduro of lying to minimize Chavez’s medical condition while he prepared his candidacy.
“Nicolas lied to this country for months,” Capriles said. “You are exploiting someone who is no longer here because you have nothing else to offer the country ... I don’t play with death, I don’t play with suffering, like that.”
At stake in the election is not only the future of Chavez’s leftist “revolution,” but the continuation of Venezuelan oil subsidies and other aid crucial to the economies of left-wing allies around Latin America, from Cuba to Bolivia.
Venezuela boasts the world’s largest oil reserves.
Government officials said Capriles was playing with fire, offending Chavez’s family and risking legal action by criticizing the handling of his illness and death.
“You can see the disgusting face of the fascist that he is,” a visibly furious Maduro said, alleging that the opposition was hoping to stir up violence.
Capriles, a descendant of Polish Jews on his mother’s side, was a victim of racist and homophobic slurs from Chavez supporters last year. Maduro appeared to allude to his rival’s sexuality during Monday’s rally.
“I do have a wife, you know? I do like women!” he told the crowd with his wife Cilia Flores at his side, who has served as attorney general but is stepping down to join her husband’s campaign.
Though single, Capriles has had various high-profile girlfriends in the past. He scoffs at the personal insults, saying they illustrate the government’s aggressive mindset.
Shaken by Chavez’s death and now immersed in an ugly election campaign, Venezuelans saw some semblance of normality return on Monday as most schools and shops reopened after being closed for most of last week.
Chavez’s many local detractors are keeping a low profile.
But they say his memory is being burnished to forget less savory parts of his rule like the bullying of opponents and stifling of private businesses with nationalizations.
“The government wants to make Venezuelans think it is impossible (for the opposition) to win this election ... but we can if we come out and vote,” said prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, rallying supporters.
“Mr. Maduro, use and abuse all the power you want ... we will not go down on our knees.”
The official mourning period for Chavez ends on Tuesday. However the government extended a temporary ban on alcohol and carrying firearms through March 16.
Several million have paid their respects at his coffin at a military academy in a dramatic outpouring of grief.
Though criticized by many for his authoritarian tendencies and handling of the economy, Chavez was loved by millions, especially the poor, because of his own humble background, plain language and attacks on global “imperialists” and the domestic “elite,” as well as his welfare policies in Venezuela’s slums.
In death, he is earning a near-religious status among supporters, perhaps akin to that of Argentina’s former populist ruler Juan Peron and his deeply loved wife Eva Peron.
State television has been playing speeches and appearances by Chavez over and over, next to a banner saying “Chavez lives forever.”
OPPOSITION‘S UPHILL STRUGGLE
Though there are hopes for a post-Chavez rapprochement between ideological foes Venezuela and the United States, a diplomatic spat worsened on Monday when Washington expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation.
Two U.S. military attaches were ordered out last week, on the day of Chavez’s death, for allegedly conspiring with locals against the government.
Venezuelan opposition TV channel Globovision, which tussled with Chavez’s government, said on Monday it had received a “formal buyout offer” and described it as “an attempted forced sale.” It did not publicly name the potential buyer.
Globovision said its directors would provide more details in the coming hours. A Globovision employee who declined to be named said management described the business as “economically, legally and politically inviable”.
Capriles, a 40-year-old centrist governor who describes himself as a “progressive” and an admirer of Brazil’s model, ran in the last presidential election in October, taking 44 percent of the votes, but was unable to prevent Chavez’s re-election.
While attacking Maduro’s handling of the crisis over Chavez’s cancer, Capriles will try to turn the focus of the month-long election campaign to the many day-to-day problems afflicting Venezuelans, from electricity cuts to crime and an inflation rate that is among the world’s highest.
Maduro, 50, who echoes Chavez’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, is sure to make his former boss the centerpiece of his campaign while casting himself as the only heir.
On Monday, though, he did promise a new anti-crime drive, and to deepen Chavez’s social programs, known as “missions,” in the slums. He also sought to blame sky high crime levels, which worsened dramatically during Chavez’s years in power, on Venezuela’s wealthy, saying they had ignored festering social problems and turned their back on the poor.
Two opinion polls before Chavez’s death gave Maduro a lead of more than 10 percentage points.
“This is going to be a really tough campaign for us, we know,” said an aide at Capriles’ office in Caracas.
“It’s hard to get everyone enthused and pumped again. We’ve only got a month, and we’re fighting Chavez’s ghost, not Maduro. But believe me, we’ll give it our best.”
Additional reporting by Simon Gardner, Terry Wade, Ana Isabel Martinez, Marianna Parraga and Mario Naranjo; Editing by Kieran Murray, Daniel Wallis, Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker