RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is up for reelection next Sunday. And with some polls predicting a tight race, the youth vote in Venezuela is shaping up to be crucial. That has both the populist president and his challenger working hard to appeal to younger voters.
NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Caracas, Venezuela.
JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Out on the campaign trail, Angie Rivas passes out flyers and organizes other young people as they canvass this gritty metropolis in a van, belting out hip music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FORERO: She comes from a poor neighborhood, the kind of district that has consistently supported President Chavez in election after election, as he's taken Venezuela on a socialist path. Since winning office 14 years ago, in 1998, Chavez has built a mass following among the poor through numerous social programs. But Rivas, who's 25 and was only 11 when Chavez took power, is with the challenger.
That's Henrique Capriles, who's energetic and 18 years younger than Chavez. Angie Rivas says much of his campaign is built on appealing to young people.
ANGIE RIVAS: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: Crime and many other things are important to us, Rivas says, and that has us leading the Capriles campaign.
Such support is helping Capriles, a former governor and mayor, to challenge Chavez in a way no other candidate has in the past.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FORERO: At Capriles' campaign stops, the message is his youth. And how after so many years of Chavez, he's now the new alternative in this oil-rich country.
HENRIQUE CAPRILES: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: I'm 40 years old, Capriles said in a recent speech, and I'm part of a new Venezuela, a new leadership in Venezuela.
Capriles, though, faces a president who pours money into housing and other programs during election time. Chavez also has a potent state media apparatus that offers blanket positive coverage of his policies. And Chavez has long cultivated the youth vote. He created a cabinet-level youth ministry, expanded free university slots and placed young people in powerful state posts.
PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
FORERO: Raise your hands, those between 15 and 30, Chavez says to a crowd on a recent night - and the hands go up. So many young people, Chavez says, my God.
And young people are still coming out in force for El Comandante. His Socialist Party, after all, has 2.5 million members under the age of 30.
(SOUNDBITE OF A MUSICAL HORN)
FORERO: On a busy central street, the bugle calls Chavista youth to action, to pass out posters with the president's image. One of them is Marbellis Linares, 28, who helps organize the effort.
MARBELLIS LINARES: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: Compare previous presidents with this one, she says. I'll take this one. Linares also says Chavez gave hope back to young people. And then she says she has to get back to her group as it chants pro-Chavez slogans.
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FORERO: Genny Zuniga, a sociologist at the Catholic University here, says the youth vote may very well decide the campaign. There are more than 7.5 million people between the ages of 18 and 30 here - 40 percent of those eligible to vote. And she says many of them are afraid of rampant crime and an economy that's been stagnant under a system that expropriates private property.
JENNY ZUNIGA: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: A healthy economic structure is not being generated, Zuniga says, and without that quality jobs are not being created.
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FORERO: At the busy Capriles campaign headquarters, one of those campaigning for the challenger is Roberto Patino. He was 10 when Chavez was elected.
ROBERTO PATINO: We have only seen him as president and we want change because he hasn't delivered the solutions that we want.
FORERO: Patino is a recently graduated engineer. He worries now about his future. He says friends have left the country to find jobs. But he wants to stay, though Patino believes it's time for a new president.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas.
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