CARACAS (Reuters) - In Venezuela’s biggest slum, a graffiti artist stencils a painting of President Hugo Chavez dunking a basketball.
Another has him rapping to hip-hop music, and another doing a wheelie on a motorcycle.
“Chavez el mio” (“My Chavez”) reads a slogan on one of the series of striking campaign images ahead of the October 7 election.
It is a new look for the 58-year-old president, who is seeking another six-year term in a tight race despite undergoing cancer surgery three times since June 2011.
Partly, it is an effort to counter the appeal of his much-younger rival, Governor Henrique Capriles of Miranda state, but also something deeper: the marketing of the socialist leader for a new generation after 14 years of his self-styled revolution.
Both sides are trying to attract young voters who, as in many countries, are often bored by politics. In the toughest Caracas “barrios,” crime and violence are much bigger daily concerns.
The group that made the pictures, “Chavez es Otro Beta,” was formed earlier this year by a loose collection of dance and sports groups, graffiti artists and motorcycle taxi drivers.
At a recent event in Petare, a shantytown to the east of the capital that is home to nearly half a million people, the group organized a girls’ soccer tournament, a dance-off, and then a shockingly dangerous “motorcycle pirouette” contest, spectators cheering as riders roared past the life-size murals of “ghetto Chavez.”
“It’s our way of showing him support and identifying ourselves with him,” founder and spokeswoman Daryelis Gonzalez, a 21-year-old hip-hop dancer better known as Bamby, told Reuters. “It’s a way in which, using your own ‘code,’ you can relate and get involved in politics.”
Petare, a sprawl of closely packed homes bisected by winding roads and alleyways plunging down steep ravines, is one of Latin America’s biggest slums and a crime hot-spot in one of the most murder-plagued cities in the world.
The event was part of efforts to keep youngsters away from drugs and guns by getting them involved in sports, music and cultural activities.
But after Otro Beta medals were handed to the winners, while smiling children danced to a performance by a local reggaeton singer, a few blocks away one of the dozen or so teenage motorcyclists was shot dead in the street.
‘THINK THEY’RE MACHO’
Across the board, voters cite law and order as their top concern. Kidnappings and deadly armed robberies are common.
At least as many Venezuelans have been murdered over the last five years as have died in Mexico’s drug war. Hardest hit are young men from the barrios.
Chavez addressed the issue for the first time during the campaign - at a recent rally in Petare with Bamby and other Otro Beta members alongside him on stage - and made a direct appeal to the gangsters.
“To those they call ‘malandros’ (‘bad guys’) ... those who go around armed, who think they’re macho, that they’re stronger than us. No, compadre (friend), that’s not the way,” he said. “Come to the ‘beta’ movement! Come build the fatherland with us. ... Come and dance to the music, to culture, sport, life.”
Beta is a barrio slang expression that can mean an issue, event or person. The movement was born in Capriles’ Miranda state, and the founders say “beta” refers to what they call Capriles’ failed security policies in their areas. So “Chavez es otro beta” essentially means “another way of doing things.”
The group has organized local boxing tournaments, set up several new basketball courts, and plans to create networks of motorcycle mechanics and beauty salon workers across the state, as well as a factory to make skateboards.
Miranda includes much of eastern Caracas, including Petare - which voted for an opposition candidate for mayor in 2008. Trying to win back that lost territory, the government rarely lets up about the area’s crime problem.
“The bourgeoisie candidate promises everything,” Chavez told the rally, saying the murder rate in Miranda had almost doubled under Capriles, to 79 homicides per 100,000 people.
“He hasn’t done anything, because he doesn’t care about the people at all. Now he says he’s going to fix the problem in Venezuela like he did in Miranda. Get out of here ... irresponsible liar.”
Chavez’s fierce rhetoric contributes to the volatile pre-election atmosphere in Venezuela.
So far the campaigns have been much calmer than some locals had feared, but a clash between stone-throwing supporters closed a regional airport on September 12, and the risk of a more serious confrontation remains.
In a less-than-subtle protest earlier this month, some Otro Beta members sprayed Chavez slogans on a Caracas convention center popular with the very wealthy for weddings and parties. One unapologetic vandal in sunglasses was interviewed outside by an opposition TV network wearing a T-shirt that read: “Whoever messes with Chavez, messes with the barrio.”
One opposition columnist said the president’s association with the Otro Beta group, and its depictions of him as a barrio youth, were embarrassing - like an old man alone at a nightclub, copying moves on the dance floor.
One prominent blogger asked: “What’s scarier, that Chavistas think these images are going to make ‘da kidz’ vote for Chavez, or that they’re right, possibly?”
As election day nears, the Otro Beta pictures have given birth to a series of copies circulating online: the “el mio” one of him on a motorbike has been changed to read “Chavez steals your Blackberry,” while one of him holding a basketball says, “Chavez doesn’t pass.”
Some Capriles supporters also hit back with a square-jawed image of their candidate dressed as Superman, above the slogan “Revolution” - with the “R” crossed out by a red X.
Capriles says young Venezuelans have been let down by Chavez’s government, the only one most of them can remember.
“There’s no difference between you and me. That’s why I want you to help me be the youngest president in Venezuela’s history,” Capriles told a rally this month. “I come here to offer you universities, schools, opportunities and jobs. Not rifles.”
Of the seven bodies delivered to the Caracas morgue in a 48-hour period around the Thursday afternoon event by Otro Beta in Petare, the story of 17-year-old Deivys Montilla was almost certainly the saddest.
Minutes before his death, he had been doing wheelies on his motorcycle as the crowd cheered, and then gasped as he and a few mostly helmet-less friends became more daring, leaning back to grind their license plates along the road.
As he left, he met his killer. Local media said the gunman had been looking for someone else and apparently shot Deivys because he was angry he could not find his intended victim.
Deivys was rushed to a hospital but died within hours. In Petare, a large crowd watched quietly as two police officers searched the street around a large puddle of blood.
Friends of the teenager, who had been working at a nearby plastics factory to save money for college, were devastated.
Many posted montages of his picture on social networks alongside emotional messages. They set up a Facebook tribute page, and one had a baseball cap made with a photo of them arm-in-arm printed on the front.
“Have you seen your cap, bro?” the friend wrote online. “We miss you.”
Editing by Kieran Murray and Will Dunham
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