Venezuelan rivals hold final rallies in bitter campaign

Venezuela's acting President Nicolas Maduro and opposition rival Henrique Capriles held big rallies Thursday, closing a brief and bitter race to succeed Hugo Chavez on the anniversary of a failed coup against the late leader.

One month after Chavez died, Maduro and Capriles head toward Sunday's election after a campaign marked by insults, allegations of assassination plots and the transformation of the fallen firebrand leftist into a religious-like figure.

Named by Chavez as his political heir, Maduro wore a Venezuelan flag like a cape and blew kisses as a truck took him through a crowd of tens of thousands of people clad in red for his final campaign rally.

Many wore shirts with the words "Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro," others danced to Caribbean beats and men, women and children wore fake mustaches in a nod to the mustachioed acting president.

"It was a very quick, mega-campaign but the people want to continue the revolution," said Feliz Oropeza, a 55-year-old housing ministry employee who donned signatures in Chavez's name on each cheek and wore a red beret like the comandante.

Maduro has a double-digit lead in opinion polls and has pledged to continue a socialist revolution that has brought popular education, health and food programs to the poor through petrodollars.

While the late leader reduced poverty, he left behind the highest murder rate in South America, with 16,000 homicides last year, and a slew of economic problems, from high inflation to shortages of basic foods despite Venezuela's oil wealth.

"Those who want a future for education, for health, come with us, come with me," Maduro told a rally in the northwestern state of Zulia before heading to Caracas. He was to speak later in the capital, with Argentine football legend Diego Maradona invited.

Addressing a huge crowd in the western state of Apure, Capriles said the country "needs change. It can't go on like this." He has pledged to keep Chavez's social missions while enacting business-friendly policies inspired by Brazil's center-left.

Chavez has cast a huge shadow over the election, with the last day of the campaign coming on the 11th anniversary of the April 11, 2002 coup against the former colonel.

Maduro has sought to link the current opposition to the coup, which was led by business leaders with the help of rebellious military officers, and public television has run footage of the events all week.

The putsch lasted just 47 hours, with loyal soldiers returning Chavez to power amid popular protests that left 19 people dead. Capriles, who was a mayor at the time, has denied having any ties to the coup.

After 14 years in power, Chavez designated Maduro as his political heir before heading to a final round of cancer surgery in December. The 58-year-old president died on March 5.

Maduro -- a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader who rose to foreign minister and vice president under Chavez -- has adopted his mentor's bombastic rhetoric while calling himself the "son" and "apostle" of Chavez.

He invokes Chavez in religious terms, calling him "Christ the redeemer of the poor." The opposition mocked him after he said the late president's spirit visited him in the form of a "little bird."

The campaign has turned nasty, with Maduro deriding Capriles as a "little bourgeois" while the opposition leader has dubbed his broad-shouldered rival a "bull-chicken."

Maduro has claimed that the opposition wants to sabotage the nation's power grid to cause a blackout before the election. He has also alleged that former US officials and the Salvadoran right-wing plotted to kill him.

Capriles, who lost to Chavez by 11 points in a presidential election in October of last year, describes his campaign as an "epic crusade" against the Maduro administration. The 40-year-old Miranda state governor has accused the government of unfairly using state funds and flooding the airwaves to dominate the campaign.