Potatoes to the people! Comic vows to challenge Chavez

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The Independent US

Could a comedian who wears a straw hat and poses as a country bumpkin, complete with his own donkey, dislodge the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez? Benjamin Rausseo, who also goes by the name of the Count of Guachero, seems to believe that he can.

Mr Rausseo, who is better known as a fast-talking comic specialising in irreverent and edgy stand-up, this week cast aside his trademark headwear and entered the political fray - formally registering as a candidate for the country's elections in December.

"This is a solemn event," he told hundreds of his cheering supporters. "I've temporarily separated myself from the Count of Guachero character, but he's going to help me in the campaign."

Mr Rausseo claimed that Mr Chavez's years in office - he was first elected in 1998 - had brought only "words, speeches and hate". He added: "The country wants solutions. [I want a system] that guarantees us opportunities without discrimination or ideology.

"We want peace, happiness, security and lots of potatoes for the people. People will make their own decisions whether they take me seriously or not."

Although Mr Chavez remains a divisive and polarising figure, recent polls of those intending to vote put his support at about 60 per cent. As things stand, Mr Rausseo would be unlikely to get more than 6 per cent.

However, the comedian claims he can make a real impression. "From today on, Hugo Chavez and his government team are fired, and the notice period has begun," he said. "You are fired, Mister President."

Mr Rausseo grew up in a village in the east of the country and left school when he was 11 to work as a shoeshine boy. He also worked as a taxi driver before he found fame as a comedian. He now owns a theme park, several hotels and two bus lines.

His party - the Independent Party for Advanced Answers - has the acronym in Spanish of Piedra, which means "rock". His slogan "Vota Piedra" means both vote for the party as well as "get angry".

For all Mr Rausseo's bluster, the only person thought to be a serious challenger to Mr Chavez is Manuel Rosales, who has twice served as governor of the western state of Zulia. Mr Rosales only registered last week after the other potential opposition candidates stepped aside to allow him to run for the leadership as a "unity candidate".

At a rally Mr Rosales told his supporters: "Look how the people of Caracas and the people of Venezuela are here in the streets, that have dared to change this government that represents the past."

But polls show that he is also trailing far behind Mr Chavez, who has cemented his support among the nation's poor.

Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster, told the Reuters news agency: "To win, he needs to bring the opposition together and fish in Chavez's pool too. For him to win is a much harder task than it is for Chavez to stay in power."

Mr Chavez, who survived a coup attempt in 2002, also won a recount election in 2004 organised by opposition figures.

Some of those opposition figures were involved in the attempted coup and the recount effort also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Washington.

The Venezuelan leader - who has been condemned for trying to wrest control of state institutions - has worked hard to shore up his support among the urban and rural poor, and his supporters say his term in office has brought real and measurable improvements in the lives of these people. Indeed, figures suggest that literacy rates, health care and access to food have all improved as a result of the millions of dollars that Mr Chavez has spent on social programmes, which he has funded with the nation's oil earnings.

In rural areas he initiated land reforms and established a $10m (£5.3m) fund for the families of peasant leaders killed by gunmen hired by landowners.

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