Chavez Promises to Outdo Himself as Venezuelans Take to the Polls

Hugo Chavez has called George Bush the devil, allied himself with Iran and inserted himself into election races all over Latin America. He has poured Venezuela's oil wealth into uplifting the poor, and rivals Fidel Castro as a defiant voice of the left.

Now, as he seeks another presidential term in an election Sunday, he is telling Venezuelans this is only the beginning of his effort to remake Venezuela as a socialist oil power.

Chavez predicts a "hurricane" victory that will secure a mandate for zero compromise on policies that inspire both adulation and despair. Having survived a coup, a recall referendum, a general strike and clashes with the Roman Catholic Church, business community and opposition media, he has entrenched his power and sharpened left-right divides beyond Venezuela's borders.

Click here to visit's Americas center.

His main challenger, tough-talking state governor Manuel Rosales, trailed far behind in an AP-Ipsos poll last month, but nonetheless has galvanized a fractured opposition movement of millions desperately hoping he can unseat Chavez.

"This is our last chance. This is the last time we can stop him from ruining this country," says Margarita Nunez, a 23-year-old university student in Caracas who firmly believes that Chavez seeks to preside over a one-man communist system like his Cuban mentor, Fidel Castro.

"If he wins, I have to find a way to leave, go somewhere," she said.

Conflict and contradiction have marked Chavez's rise from a boy who sold homemade desserts on the streets of Sabaneta, a dusty backwater town in the western Venezuelan plains. Now 52, twice divorced with five children, he is Latin America's most forceful leader. His speeches brim with homespun stories of his humble origins, resonating with the many Venezuelans who approve of what he's done for the poor.

"Chavez is a good person. He remembers what it was like when the streets were full of mud and there were no schools," said Felicia Olivera, 70, who waited hours under a hot sun to hear Chavez speak in Sabaneta. "That's why he helps us."

Others see the former paratroop commander as a tyrant who has frittered away billions of dollars needed at home on pet projects overseas. They fear his vaguely worded plans for the future, and his promise that his rule until now has been only the beginning of his so-called Bolivarian Revolution, named for Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of Latin America from Spain.

"A new era will be born next Sunday," Chavez told a sea of supporters clad in Chavista red at another rally. "There is no room in Venezuela for any other plan besides the Bolivarian Revolution."

Chavez first came to prominence as a paratroop commander leading a failed coup attempt in 1992, and was elected six years later on a wave of discontent with Venezuela's corrupt political elite. He promises a new "21st-century socialism" which aims to redistribute the country's oil wealth to the poor, mainly through programs that provide everything from subsidized food to cash benefits for single mothers.

Chavez has consolidated as much power as a democracy can credibly permit: His allies have near-total control of state offices, congress and the judiciary; he has increased state control over the oil industry; he got the constitution changed to allow him a second term and wants to change it again to abolish term limits altogether, allowing him to stay in office beyond 2012.

As Castro's health deteriorates, Chavez has become Washington's biggest adversary in the region, with ample petrodollars to back him up.

He has collided with the Bush administration on multiple fronts. He opposes its free-trade efforts, has stayed supportive of Iran in the midst of international efforts to abort its nuclear program, and famously described Bush to the U.N. General Assembly as "the devil."

Chavez insists the White House was behind the coup led by business and military leaders that unseated him for two days in 2002, only for him to be swept back into office with an outpouring of support from Venezuela's poor.

His Bush-baiting has struck a chord in a region which often feels treated as Washington's backyard, but the strategy has also at times backfired.

Some diplomats blamed Chavez's U.N. performance for scuttling Venezuela's bid for a seat on the Security Council, while perceived links with Chavez may have cost leftist candidates election victories in Mexico and Peru.

On the other hand, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador are now in the hands of elected Chavez allies with radical stances worrisome to the U.S.

Chavez has pledged at least $1.1 billion in loans and financial aid to the region in the past two years, and billions more in bond bailouts for friendly governments as well as generously financed oil deals.

But the largesse has proved a weakness at home. Polls show many believe it's too lavish.

"How it pains us to see Venezuela's riches being wasted, squandered, and on top of that, given away," says candidate Rosales, who has jumped on an issue that resonates here along with crime and unemployment.

Rosales, a cattle rancher and provincial governor, has rebuilt the opposition from its crushing defeat in the 2004 recall referendum. His supporters cite polls showing the race is tight.

The opposition accuses Chavez of waging an unfair propaganda campaign, appearing constantly on state TV and using state programs to make political capital. Some accuse the government of coercing public employees to vote for Chavez.

Observers from the European Union, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States will monitor the polls.

Chavez's strongest support is among the poor and working class in a country where 34 percent live on less than $3 a day. Rosales finds his most solid support among wealthier Venezuelans. The middle class appears split, according to the AP-Ipsos poll.

In the AP-Ipsos poll carried out Nov. 10-18, 59 percent of likely voters said they would vote for Chavez for a third term, while 27 percent said they would support Rosales. Thirteen percent said they were undecided or wouldn't answer. The survey had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

Corruption is among voters' top concerns, and Rosales has sought to capitalize on the discontent, staging the largest anti-Chavez rally in years last Saturday. Though there were no official crowd estimates, journalists said it appeared to draw a larger crowd than a Chavez speech the next day.

With Rosales warning that fraud will not be tolerated at the polls, and Chavez accusing the opposition of plotting to undermine the legitimacy of the election, shoppers have packed grocery stores to stock up on supplies in case the vote is followed by violence.

If Chavez wins, his greatest hurdles may lie ahead, with even ardent supporters pressuring him to deliver on the enormous expectations he has raised among the poor.

When he returned to his hometown last week, a sea of outstretched arms greeted him — but many held signs claiming promised housing hadn't been built, social programs were "in crisis," and policies "aren't working."

Antonio Mugnolo, a hardware store owner who has known Chavez since boyhood, says the president has made a difference by improving schools and roads.

"But he should have done a lot more," he says, complaining of corruption and inefficiency in the local government headed by Chavez's father, the governor of Barinas.

While in Sabaneta, Chavez — for the second time — inaugurated a sugar processing plant he promised would be Latin America's most modern by next August. The only visible progress since he first inaugurated the plant two years ago was a small, makeshift building.

Mugnolo, however, didn't think the poor were ready to switch allegiances.

"We won't abandon Chavez — this time," he said.

Click here to visit's Americas center.