In landmark election, Venezuelan voters see two futures

Venezuelan voters, who are electing a president today, will either keep Hugo Chavez in power or give a chance to his challenger Henrique Capriles.

Tomas Bravo/Reuters
Venezuelans line up outside a voting station during the presidential election in Caracas October 7. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez faces the toughest election of his 14-year rule on Sunday in a vote pitting his charisma and oil-financed largesse against fresh-faced challenger Henrique Capriles' promise of jobs, safer streets and an end to cronyism.

Venezuelans are casting ballots today in one of the most important elections of their lifetimes.

With their votes today, they will either keep their current president Hugo Chavez in power or elect the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles into office. Mr. Chavez has promised to forge forward with his “socialist revolution,” while Mr.Capriles has cast himself as a moderate who will maintain social safety nets for the poor but put Venezuela’s economy on more stable footing.

Surveys have varied wildly on who is poised to win today, but supporters of each side are convinced that they have the edge – and that their choice is the only viable option for Venezuela.

In the upscale neighborhood of Chacao, an opposition stronghold, voters lined up in the middle of the night to cast their ballots, despite the fact that polls didn’t open until 6 a.m. this morning.

"We’re here because we want change," says Arnaldo Palvera, an architecture student, who arrived at 5:15 a.m. to cast his ballot. He says he has no doubts about who will win today’s race.

Neither does Juan Nieto, a clothes salesman, who arrived even earlier, at 4:15 a.m. "We’re going to win."
It’s the kind of confidence that the opposition has not exhibited since Chavez took office in 1999. For nearly 14 years Chavez has easily held onto power - until now. And many of his foes are taking as proof long lines and enthusiasm across Caracas as a sign that, this time, he really might lose.

Juan Carlos Mosqueda, a cab driver, says that transporting passengers west to east and back west again across the city today, he has never seen such long queues outside of polling stations. "In 14 years, this is the best chance we have for a new president, there are so many new voters," he says. "It's close, very, very close. It’s now or never for change."

Far away from the modern shopping malls of Chacao, in the poorer neighborhoods across the capital city, stand other types of development, the markings of Chavez’s nearly 14 years in power called "missions," or social programs for the poor. In downtown Caracas, a Chavez stronghold, new houses are wrapped in a government banner to identify his latest mission to address the city's housing crisis.

Here, long lines and enthusiasm are just as high as in the opposition strongholds. "He [President Chavez] has helped a lot of people," says Pedro Gonzalez, an accountant, who lives in the area and says many of his friends and neighbors have benefited from the government’s housing initiative.

"We need to finish what we started," adds Chavez supporter Tina Periche, a juice vendor who says she distrusts challenger Capriles because his policies are “neoliberal” and “capitalist,” she says. "The president and his missions, housing, health, and culture (are) a plan for all of us."

Surveys have revealed a high number of undecided voters who could determine the outcome of the race. The opposition has said that many of  those votes will go to Capriles, one of the reasons they are confident about long lines today.

But votes among the “undecided” will also be going to Chavez, like that of Andres Barros Latan, a retired university professor who says he is voting for Chavez this year for the first time since he took office. Before, he says, he was reluctant but now he is convinced of the president’s commitment to the poor.

"We [the poor] are the majority, and the government works to make things better," he says.

It is this complex voting picture that will make today's race, and Venezuela's future, an unknown until the final ballot is counted.

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