November 29, 2006
CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- Caracas is not so much the city that never sleeps, as the city that bangs on your window shouting at 3 a.m. But, with a presidential election just days away, a tone of political hysteria can be detected amid the constant cacophony of traffic noise and Caribbean pop.
On paper, Sunday's vote ought to be a straightforward victory for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez over his main challenger, Manuel Rosales, the governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia.
Most polls put support for Chavez, seeking to extend his eight-years in government by another six years, as high as 60 percent. Yet this election is far from straightforward. While the presidency may be the prize, campaigners on both sides claim the soul of the country is at stake.
For years, wealthy and poor have lived in uneasy proximity in the capital of this oil-rich country.
From luxury apartment blocks and the chaotic slums of the barrios the privileged and the poverty-stricken stare out at one another across an unbridgeable economic and social chasm. Now that divide is the frontline along which the electoral battle line has been drawn.
Never one to shy from controversy or confrontation, Chavez has promised to press forward with his "Bolivarian Revolution" if re-elected, a process which has poured resources into the barrios, bringing healthcare and education to millions of Venezuelans for the first time. He has even vowed to dedicate a victory on Sunday to Cuba's ailing leader, Fidel Castro.
To his opponents though, Chavez is a dangerous demagogue intent on undermining free speech and establishing a Cuban-style one-party state who must be stopped at all costs.
"Chavez is like a snake-charmer," Alfonso Marquina, a leading opposition politician, told CNN.
"A great communicator -- and a great liar also. This government is exclusive and discriminative. Chavez is not a democrat; he doesn't care about having a diversity of opinion."
On successive days last weekend, supporters of both Rosales and Chavez rallied peacefully in their hundreds of thousands -- both sides claimed millions -- in Caracas in a powerful display of the level of popular involvement in this election.
Yet the reality is that Sunday's vote, whatever the outcome, is only likely to further polarize a nation already dangerously split.
After eight years of Chavez's combative style of leadership and in a country in which family relationships and job prospects are now influenced by political affiliations, there is no longer any such thing as an undecided voter in Venezuela.
That has left workplaces and communities -- especially those caught between the barrios and the penthouses -- divided. Opponents of the government accuse it of discriminating against them and claim that many public workers who signed an opposition-orchestrated petition demanding a referendum on Chavez's leadership in 2004 were purged from their jobs.
One woman, who refused to give her name, told CNN she had been "untouchable" despite signing the petition after 25 years of service in public administration. But she said her daughter's one-year contract in a public position had not been renewed and many people were afraid to openly oppose the government.
"People are pressed into marching at Chavez rallies," she says. "They give them their red caps and push them to go. But a lot of people have changed their minds about Chavez because he hasn't delivered what he promised and he has divided our society in half."
Yet workers for private companies also admit to being pressured into taking sides by their bosses and colleagues -- against the government.
"If you say you don't like politics, people think you are on the other side," said Carolina Chacon. "People would rather hide in a big group. If people are quiet and don't say a word you think: 'Oh, they must be pro-government.'"
Supporters of the government say opposition concerns over Chavez's style of leadership are merely the propaganda of a wealthy clique who have seen political privileges taken from them but still find a means of expression via the Venezuela's powerful anti-government private media contemptuous of the president's popularity.
"We're very sorry that our opponents haven't understood the president's message, a message of love and a message of reunion," Milarosa Hernandez told CNN during Sunday's rally. "The president has given as much as he can to the poor people -- as well as the rich people -- and we are sorry they don't understand that."
What will happen after Sunday's vote is anybody's guess but, with both sides warning their supporters to be vigilant against electoral fraud and corruption, one thing that seems certain is that neither side is likely to accept defeat -- or indeed victory -- graciously.