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Although his chances of beating authoritarian President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela's Dec. 3 presidential elections are very slim, opposition unity candidate Manuel Rosales launched his campaign last week with an unusually smart slogan: "Ni el imperio, ni el barbudo!" (Neither the (U.S.) empire, nor the (Cuban) bearded one!)

Judging from what Rosales told me in a long telephone interview after he announced his campaign strategy Thursday, the 54-year-old former governor of oil-rich Zulia state will hit Chavez where the Venezuelan comandante is most vulnerable: his penchant for giving away billions of dollars to foreign countries, while nearly half of the Venezuelan people live in poverty.

"We believe a major injustice is being done when a country that is so rich, one of the richest in the world, has a president who goes around the world giving away our wealth while we in Venezuela suffer growing poverty, hunger and unemployment," Rosales told me.

Chavez has given away $38 billion to foreign countries since he took office in 1999, Rosales said, including 100,000 barrels of oil a day in subsidized prices to Cuba.

"We are even selling subsidized oil to the United States," the opposition candidate said, referring to Chavez's much-publicized deal to ship 12 million gallons of subsidized heating oil to poor neighborhoods in Massachusetts. "Meanwhile, unemployment in Venezuela is at about 15 percent, about 72 percent of the middle class has become poorer, our health services are going downhill and our infrastructure is crumbling."

Hours before the interview, Rosales had appeared at a news conference in Caracas flanked by his recent rivals for the opposition nomination: Teodoro Petkoff, a center-left former leftist guerrilla leader who served as planning minister in the late 1990s, and Julio Borges, leader of the Primero Justicia party. Both have withdrawn from the race to back Rosales.

Asked about Chavez's charges that he will be "the (U.S.) empire's candidate," Rosales said he would neither be a puppet of the United States nor of Cuba.

"We are not going to be the empire's defenders," Rosales said. "The empire must respect our sovereignty, and we must respect the empire."

On Venezuela's closest allies, Cuba and Bolivia, Rosales said that "we cannot be looking at societies like Cuba as a model to be copied. We want modernity, transformation, development."

But the opposition's campaign will center on Venezuelans' everyday needs, he said.

"We don't have a war vocation, nor a war mentality," Rosales said. "We are going to change the warplanes that Chavez is buying for hospitals. We are going to change the tanks Chavez is buying for schools, and the rifles for scholarships for the young. Our only war will be against hunger, poverty and crime."

My opinion: While they have succeeded in uniting behind a single candidate, Venezuela's opposition leaders face formidable obstacles to win in December.

Unlike in Mexico's recent election, or in most Latin American countries, Venezuela has no independent electoral commission, nor a multiparty Congress, nor equal time for all candidates on national TV.

Chavez controls everything and is not shy about manipulating the electoral process at his will.

On the other hand, Rosales has picked the right strategy: aiming at the millions of Venezuelans who are neither with Chavez, nor with their country's old-time, discredited political class.

Opposition polls show that Chavez has about 35 percent of the population solidly behind him, while about 25 percent of the people support the opposition, and the remaining 40 percent define themselves as "ni-ni" (neither pro-Chavez nor pro-opposition). And a recent poll by Barometro Ibero-Americano shows that Chavez's generosity with Cuba does not enjoy wide support in Venezuela: Only 33 percent of Venezuelans see Fidel Castro with "sympathy," the poll shows.

It will be nearly impossible for Rosales to win against a president who runs electoral agencies at his whim, and who will most likely give away billions in government petro dollars to potential voters shortly before the election.

But for the first time since Chavez took power eight years ago, Venezuela's opposition has found a powerful theme with which to confront him. Rosales may not win the election, but he may bring an oppressed and demoralized opposition back to life. That would be no small victory.

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Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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