CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez accused political opponents eyeing a 2012 election battle on Sunday of wanting to reverse social policies in Venezuela’s slums and rid the nation of Cubans who promote his self-styled “revolution.”
In ebullient form, Chavez also announced he would organize in early 2012 what he called a “cancer summit” for Latin American leaders who like him have battled the disease.
The accusation that rivals would end slum aid is potentially damaging to the opposition given Chavez’s socialist “barrio” projects — like free healthcare and schooling plus subsidized food — have underpinned his popularity.
Most opposition leaders have, in fact, pledged to keep the best of Chavez’s social policies. But he knows just raising the specter of losing them will strike fear into the poor.
“It’s a lie that the bourgeoise will continue the missions if they win,” Chavez said, using his usual class-based language to dismiss all foes as representatives of a rich elite.
“They will destroy them. They will get rid of the Cubans and they will privatize health again,” he added in a telephone call to state TV.
Thousands of doctors from Cuba, whose government is closely allied with the Venezuelan leader, have staffed Chavez’s flagship “Mision Barrio Adentro” (Inside the Slum) to provide free medical care in the South American OPEC member.
They are among more than 40,000 Cubans working with the Chavez government as everything from sports trainers to intelligence and military advisers.
Venezuela sends cheap oil to Cuba in exchange.
While the success of Barrio Adentro has been tarnished of late, with some clinics empty and in disrepair, it remains massively popular among the poor majority.
Opposition presidential hopeful Henrique Capriles Radonski said this week he would be “mad” to end the slum projects.
“The missions belong to the people. I don’t agree with this form of politics: inventing stories to pressure, blackmail and psychologically terrorize people,” he said.
Opposition leaders like Capriles, who will contest a primary in February for a single united ticket against Chavez, are trying to avoid direct attacks on him in light of his antagonistic style, ill health and connection with the poor.
Yet Chavez, despite still recovering from cancer surgery and chemotherapy, is stepping up his rhetoric against what he terms U.S.-backed opponents. There is less than a year to go until the October 7, 2012 presidential poll.
It was not the first time he has said rivals would strike down his social policies, but he has ramped up that accusation given the opposition’s increasingly high profile as they select preliminary candidates ahead of their primary.
“They hate us, and that’s why they attack us,” said Chavez, 57, who plays up his own humble roots and rural upbringing.
“They can’t bear seeing our revolutionary lads because they are symbols of change, they hate them. ... None of those candidates has what it takes to run this country, it would become ungovernable. We are the only guarantor of stability.”
A sympathy bounce has given Chavez a nearly 10-point gain to just under 60 percent in most opinion polls since he had surgery in Cuba in June to remove a malignant tumor.
Yet surveys also show a close fight when it comes to voter intentions, with roughly a third pro-Chavez, a third undecided, and the rest leaning toward the opposition.
Chavez has declared himself cured, though doctors say it is at least two years before a cancer patient can be certain.
“There is no cancer or force that can stop us,” he said, explaining his idea for a meeting of Latin American leaders who had beaten cancer.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff won a 2010 election after chemotherapy while Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was diagnosed last year with a lymphoma that he said was in remission four months later.
Most recently, Brazil’s former ruler Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva started chemotherapy treatments for throat cancer.
Editing by Enrique Andres Pretel and Todd Eastham