Jim Armitage: Ken Livingstone's old chum Hugo Chavez faces a tough election

Venezuela could go orthodox as fiery Cristina Kirchner takes Argentina further to the left

A devil to the US, a folk hero in much of Venezuela, could Ken Livingstone's old chum Hugo Chavez finally be on his way out?

Despite the privations of many in his crime-riddled country and its human rights abuses, it's hard not to feel a childish respect for the man who cocks a snook at Washington.

But, at elections looming next month, Hugo has tough opposition in the form of Henrique Capriles. The 41-year-old Capriles, a Catholic of Jewish ancestry,styles himself as a modern democrat and wants to woo back the investors Chavez has chased out of town.

Chavez has used Venezuela's vast oil wealth to fund much-needed social programmes. Predictably, he's turned on the taps in the election run-up to win over poorer voters.

However, Capriles argues the oil industry is hugely inefficient and should bring in far more money.

He cites as his hero Brazil's reformist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who encouraged free market reforms alongside a strong redistribution-of-wealth ethos.

If the elections do go his way, it will be a dramatic shift in the Latin American tectonic plates. The region has been split between the orthodox Brazilian and Mexican economies and the more erratic and left-wing Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Venezuela would be jumping ship to the orthodox camp just as Argentina, led by fiery Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, heads further left.

The pro-Chavez oil union declared this week they will not let Capriles win: "We, the working class, will not allow it." If that read like a threat, perhaps it was meant to. If Capriles wins, it will only be by a narrow margin. Chavez's supporters would contest the result. Expect trouble.

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