Rosales Opposition Choice to Face Chavez

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 9, 2006; 9:05 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Political opponents of Hugo Chavez called off their primary election and joined forces Wednesday behind a popular state governor as their top choice to challenge the Venezuelan president in December.

The pullout of eight candidates prompted the cancellation of Sunday's primary vote and cleared the way for Zulia state Gov. Manuel Rosales to face Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and is seeking a third term that would keep him in office through 2012.

"I will be the president of all Venezuelans regardless of their differences," Rosales told a cheering crowd, referring to complaints that Chavez has polarized society, stoking divisions between his poor supporters and wealthier opponents.

Rosales, 54, accused Chavez of overspending on a military buildup and pledged that if elected on Dec. 3, he would to use Venezuela's oil wealth to help the poor and improve education and health care.

"We will exchange warplanes for hospitals, tanks for schools and universities, missiles for preschools," he said.

The opposition has called Chavez's spending on Russian warplanes and other weapons a waste. Chavez, who constantly clashes with the United States, has said Venezuela must be prepared to defend itself against the U.S. and has built close ties with countries such as Iran and North Korea.

Rosales ridiculed Chavez's claims of a possible war with the U.S. and said Venezuela's real war should be against rampant street crime.

"We aren't going to have fantasy wars," he told reporters. "Our only war will be against crime ... against drug traffickers, against (Colombian) guerrillas."

Rosales appeared to echo U.S. government accusations that Chavez's government is uncooperative against drug smuggling and has an "ideological affinity" with leftist Colombian rebels. Chavez has called those claims false and politically motivated.

His opponents argue that despite the leftist Chavez's heavy spending on social programs for the poor, the efforts are plagued with mismanagement.

Rosales spoke after Julio Borges, a conservative lawyer who leads the party Justice First, announced that he and other leading opposition candidates had decided to back Rosales.

"For all who love this country, today is the day to put aside personal ambitions and think about the unity of Venezuela," Borges said. "Mr. Manuel Rosales, count on all of us. I offer my support, the support of my party and that of my generation to you."

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