Venezuela battle lines drawn as Chavez goes for third term

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The Independent US

In this factory perched on a hillside blessed with sweeping views, the workers do not just make valves for Venezuela's oil industry. Rather, when their seven-hour shifts are finished, they take night classes, complete extra training or else hold meetings of the workers' committee. They also - overwhelmingly - express their support for President Hugo Chavez.

In 2002, the owner of this then private company reportedly closed down the plant. Three years later, Mr Chavez expropriated the plant and turned it into a collaboration between the state and a workers' cooperative. It was named Inveval, an acronym for the Venezuelan Indigenous Valve Industry.

With Venezuelans going to the polls on Sunday, the story of Inveval provides a insight into Mr Chavez's vision for Venezuela. As polls show the President poised to secure re-election easily, Venezuelans are wondering whether the experience of Inveval will be repeated throughout the country.

"Chavez is very much with the working class. In the past no president did what Chavez has done," said Jorge Paredes, who bears the title of company president but receives the same wage as each of the other 60 workers at Inveval.

So far only around half a dozen privately owned companies have been expropriated by the government. In the countryside, a million acres of state-owned land have been turned over to peasants and co-operatives, while only a handful of private estates have been seized. But Mr Chavez has said his third term will be his most radical as he develops his vision to build "socialism for the 21st century".

Mr Chavez's opponents - who have gathered around Manuel Rosales, the centrist governor of Zulia state - say they fear the president wishes to transform the country into Cuba, with whose leader he has a close relationship. The views of Yvonne Vidal, a Rosales-supporter in Caracas, were typical. "We have the option of a Cuban-style system versus democracy," said the 42-year administrator. "There should be no middle ground with [Chavez]. He says you are either with him or against him."

But the President's aides dispute such claims. His spokesman, Martin Pacheco, said: "It's completely false ... Those who don't have anything are going to be included and they are going to be given [help] and land." Asked if this required the wholesale seizing of private land, he replied: "No. We have enough land. We have a land law that guarantees a better distribution of land."

Most polls give Mr Chavez a 20-point advantage over Mr Rosales, though the incumbent is aiming even higher - hoping to secure 10 million votes out of an estimated electorate of around 16 million. This would place him on more than 62 per cent. A poll published this week by the US-based Evans/McDonough Company suggested a 57-38 victory for Mr Chavez over Mr Rosales.

The President's supporters are overwhelming the country's poor who have been helped by thousands of "missions" established with the country's oil wealth to provide soup kitchens, free clinics and subsisided foods. The government estimates that 1.5 million people have been taught to read and the country's adult literacy rate is an estimated 93 per cent.

Mr Chavez's ability to overcome a coup in 2002 and then a recall vote in 2004 involving a variety of groups have also undoubtedly bolstered his position. He has won international support among those on the left by his readiness to denounce Washington's "imperialism". While Mr Rosales's campaign posters ask voters to "Dare to Change", Mr Chavez's placards read "Vote Against Imperialism" and "Vote Against the Devil" - a reference to his description of Mr Bush during a recent speech at the UN. Returning to that theme earlier this week, he told hundreds of thousands of supporters in Caracas: "We are confronting the devil, and we will hit a home run off the devil next Sunday. On 3 December we're going to defeat the most powerful empire on earth by knockout."

Analysts say that aside from such rhetoric, Mr Chavez has developed his influence throughout the region by acting as a source of credit for countries such as Bolivia and Argentina. By buying bonds and providing an alternative source of finance, the Venezuelan leader has greatly lessened the influence of IMF in South America.

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, said: "What he is saying is that free trade is all right but not necessarily on Washington's terms. Washington's terms make such trade, especially in agriculture, impossible to wisely engage in."