Chavez stokes fears that if he goes, popular welfare projects go with him

But opposition candidate Henrique Capriles says he would keep the best of Chavez's welfare programs, which include healthcare and subsidized food staples, and build on them.

Miraflores Presidential Office/AP
In this image released by Miraflores Presidential Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (c.) waves to supporters upon his arrival to the youth day celebrations in La Victoria, Aragua state, Venezuela, on Feb. 12.

Even the cats and dogs love Hugo Chavez in the backstreets of La Vega.

At least that is what grateful owners joke as they line up with their pets to take advantage of the latest initiative by the socialist Venezuelan president's network of grassroots organizations: subsidized neutering.

"If the opposition takes over, we lose all these services that Chavez has given us. We go back to zero," said Laura De Pernalete, helping organize the sterilization program in the poor Caracas neighborhood.

"La Vega is 100 percent behind Chavez."

The plethora of "missions" bringing services to Venezuela's slums and impoverished rural areas - from subsidized food to Cuban-staffed health clinics - has underpinned the socialist Chavez's popularity among the poor during 13 years in power.

He is successfully stoking fears that his signature welfare projects, such as the "Barrio Adentro" ("Inside the Slum") healthcare network, will be dismantled should the opposition win the country's presidential election on Oct. 7.

Despite opposition euphoria at selecting a young and streetwise unity candidate - Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles - to fight the election, Chavez's foes know how tough it will be to win over his loyal and passionate support base.

Piling money into more social projects in a pre-election spending spree, Chavez has an edge in polls ahead of the vote.

Yet there is disillusionment among some "Chavistas", as his supporters are known, and surveys show that about a third of Venezuelans remain undecided.

An admirer of Brazil's model of free-market economics with a solid social conscience, Capriles insists he would keep the best of Chavez's welfare programs, and even build on them.

"I want to expand them, and get rid of the corruption and inefficiency that characterizes them," Capriles told Reuters on a recent campaign tour, adding that more than half the Barrio Adentro clinics in his Miranda state were abandoned.

That message, however, has not reached those in the queue for animal neutering in La Vega.

"The opposition wants to stop all this," said Hilda Jimenez, cradling a couple of cats. "Governments did nothing for the poor in the past. Only Chavez has bothered with us."

OMNIPRESENT CHAVEZ

The opposition paraphernalia plastered all over middle-class Caracas neighborhoods was entirely absent from the tatty streets around her. Instead, the ubiquitous red of Chavez's ruling Socialist Party, and images of "El Comandante", were everywhere.

Down the hill, dozens lined up to shop in a state-run Mercal store, where basic products like milk, chicken, oil, rice, beans and sugar are sold at a quarter of the normal price.

Shop workers scoffed when asked about photos in opposition media showing largely empty Mercal stores.

"As soon as products come in, people buy them immediately because the prices are incredible!" one said. "It's laughable the right-wing tries to present that as something bad."

Despite their visceral hatred of opposition leaders, whom they broadly view as representatives of an old, discredited political elite who never had any interest in Venezuela's poor majority, grassroots Chavez activists are realistic.

They know they have a fight on their hands to stop the energetic Capriles from developing momentum. They plan to highlight his "bourgeois" background in contrast to Chavez's humble upbringing by his grandmother in a rural shack.

They will also seek to target Capriles for his role in a murky episode at the Cuban embassy in 2002 when he was accused of fomenting a riot during the chaos surrounding a short-lived military coup against Chavez. He says he was mediating.

"We can hang his dirty linen out. He's a coupster. He comes from a privileged background. He has never lived like us," said Eriberto Hurtado, who works for one of the thousands of 'communal councils' Chavez has set up around Venezuela.

"Capriles does have strong support though, I'm not doubting that. We have to encourage our people to work hard."

"SOCIALIST" CARWASH

One Caracas district opposition activists rarely dare enter is the militantly pro-Chavez "January 23" slum set on hillsides perched above his Miraflores presidential palace.

Named for the date when a Venezuelan dictator fell, the neighborhood is heavily armed and locals played a major role taking to the streets and demanding Chavez's return after the brief putsch against him in 2002.

Chavez habitually votes at a school there, says he often stares up to the jumble of houses piled on top of each other when meditating in his office, and has a strong emotional connection with residents.

"They don't have a chance here. Come up here? They'd be crazy. I don't even want to talk about that garbage," said Martin Campos, 42, a former soldier and Chavez loyalist.

"We want Chavez until 2021, and then Rosines," he laughed, referring to the president's daughter.

Now working on logistics for Chavez's public events and caravans, Campos runs a busy small business in his spare time cleaning vehicles: "The Socialist Carwash".

Such marketing fits in well in an area where Chavez's figure and words adorn walls next to other Latin American radicals like Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Emiliano Zapata and Fidel Castro.

A rare poster for Capriles remains on one street - but is covered with obscene graffiti and a stencil of an AK-47 assault rifle.

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