November 22, 2008
Hugo Chávez, with his grip on Venezuela's political system at stake,
has been campaigning for his allies running in Sunday's elections.
BARINAS, Venezuela -- The crowd stretched as far as the eye could see down Camejo Street.
On President Hugo Chávez's home turf, some 10,000 people lustily cheered a speech this week by Julio César Reyes, whom Chávez has branded a traitor because he's battling Chávez's older brother to be governor of the state of Barinas. Chávez's father holds the job but isn't running for reelection.
''We're not afraid of anyone,'' Reyes said in a clear allusion to President Chávez and his family. ``We're going to build a new society.''
With many convinced that Chávez's father and brothers have stolen public money and abused power, Barinas is the highest-profile race in Sunday's state and local elections and represents one of the best opportunities for Chávez's opponents to gain ground.
With his near-absolute control over the political system at stake, Chávez has been campaigning furiously across the country, including three visits to Barinas over the past two months.
After 10 years in office, he needs a strong showing to maintain momentum for further extending government control over Venezuela's economy, retaining his preeminent role over Latin America's leftist bloc and winning public approval early next year to be allowed to seek reelection rather than have to leave office when his term ends in 2012.
Political analysts say that Chávez has strengthened his candidates' fortunes in recent weeks. He has savagely berated his foes, promoted his brand of socialism as the cure for the global economic crisis and inaugurated the construction of highways, schools and health clinics, even though the recent drop in oil prices is costing Venezuela billions of dollars.
Caracas-based pollster Luis Vicente León predicted a month ago that Chávez's opponents would win seven or eight of the 22 governorships on the ballot Sunday, compared with two victories in 2004. León now thinks that opposition candidates could win as few as three governors' races this year. However, he said that a Chávez defeat in Barinas would outweigh many victories elsewhere.
Opposition politicians predict that they'll win as many as 12 of the races for governor.
To prevent that, Chávez has promised to imprison a popular opposition candidate, branded one-time supporters such as Reyes as traitors and threatened to roll tanks onto the streets of one state if his candidate doesn't win.
''Chávez has been polarizing the electorate, and putting the focus on himself and away from the country's problems,'' León said. He noted that with Chávez's popularity level having risen to 57 percent from 46 percent in January, his best chance for a strong result Sunday depends on turning the election into a referendum on himself.
Opposition parties have set aside their differences to settle on single candidates in most of the winner-take-all races. They're hoping to build on their stunning victory a year ago, when voters rejected Chávez's first attempt to abolish term limits.
Besides the governors, Venezuelans will elect 328 mayors Sunday. Pollsters expect opposition candidates to make gains but for Chávez-backed candidates to hold onto a majority of the mayoral offices.
The elections come as plummeting oil prices have led analysts to predict that the oil-based economy will slow dramatically next year. This would force Chávez to reduce lavish subsidies for the poor and aid for political allies such as Bolivia and Cuba.
After spending weeks mocking the United States' role in the global crisis, Chávez has begun to acknowledge that Venezuela will suffer, as well, but he's touted the country's $40 billion in foreign reserves as a bulwark against major problems.
He also has softened his steady criticism of the United States in the wake of Barack Obama's presidential election victory.
Pollsters say crime is voters' overriding concern. The number of murders in Venezuela has doubled during his presidency to 13,000 last year. Caracas is the murder capital of the world, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
Voters also complain about a 35 percent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America, and chronic food shortages -- the most recent being coffee.
''Everything is so expensive, and we're poor,'' said Aideo Ortiz, 38, who lives in a Caracas slum.
Since his stinging defeat a year ago, Chávez has improved his standing by putting more food on supermarket shelves, creating more government jobs and boosting spending on popular education programs for the poor, known as ``missions.''
''He's done things that no other president has done, like reducing illiteracy through his missions,'' said teacher Carlos Azan, 29.
Secretary Zenaida López, 49, pointed to Chávez's program of having Cuban doctors provide free health care.
Both of them spoke in the town of Libertad, outside the city of Barinas -- which is also a state -- in western Venezuela.
Minutes later, dozens of motorcycles, SUVs, pickups and minibuses roared around Libertad's town square, with Chávez supporters in red T-shirts waving red flags as they hung from the vehicles.
Everyone dismounted and headed to a stage set up three blocks away.
There, the president's older brother, Adán Chávez, warned in a booming voice that opponents were planning to claim victory through vote fraud.
''Our enemies are capable of doing anything,'' said Chávez, 55, a one-time university professor who has served as his brother's ambassador to Cuba and minister of education.
The night before, a hip-hop band with a pounding bass line warmed up the crowd at the rally in Barinas for Reyes, who's served as the city's mayor for the past eight years.
''We want the Chávez family out,'' truck driver José Tovar, 33, said in an interview. ``They've enriched themselves and act like they are monarchs.''
Along with their father serving as governor, President Chávez's brother Argenis has served as secretary of state for Barinas. Another brother, Aníbal, is mayor of their hometown, Sabaneta. Two other brothers -- Narciso and Adelis -- have had extensive business dealings with the state.
A local congressman has accused Argenis and Narciso Chávez of embezzling government money to buy ranches and build mansions in Barinas for themselves.
''They preach socialism but don't practice it,'' said accountant Jesus Mercado, 47.
President Chávez has pulled out the stops to win Barinas, even inaugurating the construction of an international airport there, although the current airport has only six departures a day.
''If they win Barinas, it would be a blow to my kidney,'' Chávez said during his most recent campaign stop in Barinas, two weeks ago. ``It would be like they were robbing my own nest.''