CARACAS — On Sunday, Venezuelans will go to the polls to either extend President Hugo Chavez's almost 14-year rule for another six years or choose his younger challenger Henrique Capriles to lead the nation. While the Venezuelan leader's ongoing battle with cancer has been a prominent issue in the presidential race, that for many voters this election will be a referendum on the results of Chavez's socialist policies.
As Sunday's election nears, President Chavez has stepped up new government building projects in Caracas that provide jobs and free housing to the poor. By using Venezuela's vast oil resources to pay for billions of dollars worth of social programs and subsidies, the president has in the past been able to maintain the support of a majority of voters.
A tank of gasoline in Venezuela costs less than a bottle of water.
And Chavez supporters like Ramon Gonzales are not bothered if they have to wait in long lines for limited supplies of subsidized food.
“We are all accustomed to waiting in line. Everyone is used to it. It is all good," said Gonzales.
But critics say Chavez's seizure of private companies and the imposition of price and currency controls have undermined economic development. His critics also blame him for the soaring violent crime rate.
In this election, Venezuela's opposition has united around Henrique Capriles, a former governor who says he wants to maintain the popular social programs but make the country more business-friendly. Capriles supporter Luis Maceto says Venezuela needs new leadership.
“Because he offers change for the entire situation in which we are living: the violence, the unemployment, the insecurity," said Maceto.
Independent pollster Luis Vicente Leon says Chavez is leading but the race is close. He says even Chavez supporters are increasingly critical of government cronyism and inefficiency.
"It goes beyond ideological themes, it goes beyond the left and the right, it goes beyond radicalism or moderation. The perfect grade for Chavez’s government is...very poor," said Leon.
When they head to the polls on Sunday, Venezuelan voters will decide to either continue Chavez's brand of socialism or seek change.