Among Chavistas, support for Maduro not unconditional

A truck barreled through a Caracas market with loudspeakers playing a campaign song of acting President Nicolas Maduro, with a Caribbean beat and the chorus "Chavez I swear, my vote is for Maduro."

Many residents, fishmongers and fruit salesmen along the crowded blue-collar neighborhood of Petare have pledged to follow Hugo Chavez's wishes and vote for Maduro in Sunday's presidential election.

But most warn that Maduro will not get a free pass if he fails to follow the fallen leftist leader's self-styled socialist revolution, a set of oil-funded health, education and food programs for the poor.

"I will vote for Maduro. But if he doesn't follow Chavez's legacy, we will remove him," said Jean Carlos Chavez, a burly 28-year-old fruit salesman selling mangos under a bridge next to stalls with posters of Maduro.

"I like him as a man. He will do well. But he must show who Maduro is," he said.

The fruit salesman and others cited the constitution, which states that a referendum to recall the president can be held after the first three years of a mandate with the signatures of 20 percent of voters.

Kelvin Gomez, 38, who was selling fish covered in ice, pointed to different shopkeepers who planned to vote for opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in last October's election.

"We are all friends here," the longtime Chavez supporter said, despite the deeply divided country that the late president left behind. "It looks like Maduro will win by a small margin. He has shown a lot of weaknesses."

Riding a wave of sympathy following Chavez's death on March 5, Maduro -- a former bus driver with a thick mustache who rose to foreign minister and vice president under Chavez -- is enjoying double-digit leads in opinion polls against Capriles.

But the turbocharged Chavez is a tough act to follow.

Driven by his charisma and popular social programs, the firebrand leader enjoyed an immense following in his 14 years in power, trouncing opponents in every election.

Before heading to Cuba for a final round of cancer surgery that proved futile, Chavez urged Venezuelans to vote for Maduro if was incapacitated, saying his protege was up to the task.

"It won't be easy to manage because whatever decision Maduro makes, he will have a group who will say that Chavez would have done it differently," German Campos, director of the polling firm Consultores 30.11, told AFP.

"He will have to build his own way of relating with society, build his own style," he said.

Despite his popularity, the late leader left a slew of problems, including a soaring murder rate and a fragile economy marked by high inflation, a huge debt and basic food shortages.

Chavistas won't give Maduro "a blank check, but there will be some patience," Campos said. "Whether this wait-and-see time will last one day, one year or two years is hard to say. It will depend on the way he governs."

Up the hill in Petare, a neighborhood of cement buildings surrounded by red-brick slum dwellings, Lenin Henriquez said Maduro would never be as popular as Chavez.

"He can be a good president, but not like Chavez," Henriquez said as he sold onions, potatoes and eggs on a sidewalk under a baking sun.

"You don't see the ability of being president for the moment. But he will improve on the job," he said, adding that he was giving Maduro six months to show what he's made of. "If he doesn't accomplish the job, the people will recall him."

Sitting in a tiny booth, 57-year-old cobbler Luis Antelis said he would vote for Maduro but that he needed to "get serious," citing the acting president's assertion that Chavez's spirit had visited him in the form of a "little bird."

Maduro lost at least one voter in Petare, 62-year-old grandmother Hilda Coronado.

Holding her two-year-old granddaughter's hand, she walked into a grocery store looking for rice and flour, but the shopkeeper nodded no, pointing to empty shelves.

"I don't want to vote for anybody," said Coronado, who had voted for Chavez in every election since 1998.

The former housekeeper said she doesn't get a pension and her daughter is a single mom who works as a secretary to bring food to the table. She blamed the country's ills on Chavez's entourage.

"Chavez did a lot of great things. But those around him blocked everything, and they're the ones in power today," she said. "We have to realize that he's gone. He's no longer the one in charge."