Viva Chavez! Venezuelan president set for election victory

A third term as President of Venezuela beckons for man who looks after the poor
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THEY arrived in a steady stream throughout the morning, bearing with them a stack of Tupperware-style containers and the expectation of a decent feed. Young and old, women and men, they handed over their tubs and then took them back, steaming full of rice, chicken and soup.

"We come every day. We come to get lunch - mainly for our children. It's really great," said Lilian Ibarra, a mother of three and a grandmother of nine, as she waited for her food. "We all ate before but now we eat better, with fruit and vegetables, the things the children need. [And] we have healthcare, doctors. Whenever we have any problem the doctors are right there."

She added, rather unnecessarily: "We are all Chavistas."

Venezuela votes today, with polls suggesting incumbent Hugo Chavez will be easily reelected to a third term with a lead of anything up to 20 point over his centrist challenger, Manuel Rosales.

His victory will be cemented by people such as Mrs Ibarra, for if Mr Chavez's vision for the future of Venezuela was first forged during his years in the armed forces - and then further burnished as he cooled his heels in jail following a failed 1992 coup attempt - it is in the hard-pressed barrios of Caracas that such a vision is now being realised.

In places such as the scruffy neighbourhood of El Guarataro, scores of " missions" have been established using the country's oil wealth to help feed and educate the poor. The Independent on Sunday was escorted on a tour by Mariella Guzman, a 53-year-old Chavez activist who two-and-half years ago established a government soup kitchen which feeds 150 people, six days a week.

Ms Guzman, wearing a bright red Chavez T-shirt showing 10 fingers (referring to the hoped-for 10m votes in support of the president), insisted that anyone in need - and not just supporters of Mr Chavez - were welcome at the mission. Yet the kitchen was full of Chavez election posters and Mrs Guzman made no attempt to pretend that anyone coming to eat would not receive a portion of proselytizing. "The idea is not to exclude anyone," she added. "[But] if anyone says anything bad about Chavez I will tell them not to come to my house because this is a revolutionary house."

Another woman, Damari Briceno, who arrives every morning at 6am to help prepare the food, spoke of an adult education class she was taking - another mission set up by the Chavez government. "It sets an example to others to do the same because you're a mother or a grandmother," she said. The various missions - there are almost 20 different types in all - have had real results, reducing poverty, increasing access to free health and subsidised food and helping teach 1.5m adults to read. Unesco has praised the country's efforts in this area and estimated that the adult literacy rate stands at around 93 per cent.

Mark Weisbrot, director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research which has collated government data, said: "Chavez is going to win reelection because he has delivered quite a lot on his promise to share the country's oil wealth with the poor - which are the majority of the population. His anti-poverty efforts are certainly bigger than anywhere else in the hemisphere."

But Venezuela is deeply polarised between Chavez's overwhelming poor supporters and his largely middle-class opponents. His critics say he wishes to turn booming Venezuela into Cuba and seize private property. He has also been accused of increasing authoritarianism and of using state resources for his campaign. In recent weeks state television has featured a flurry of inaugurations of new public works, including a subway line, a new bridge and new factories. Paying state workers their Christmas bonus several weeks earlier than usual has also been seen by some observers as an attempt to cement support.

Many of Mr Rosales' supporters also cite the level of crime in Caracas, where kidnapping is a serious issue, as a reason for changing the government. According to official police figures the annual number of murders in the country increased from 5,974 in 1999 when Mr Chavez first assumed office to 9,962 last year.

Mauricio Blanco, 36, shopping at a US-style mall in the capital, said he had not personally suffered, but added: "It's about safety. I have children. I live in quite a safe area but there are big problems. They do exist." Two years ago Mr Chavez won a referendum vote that had been initiated by opposition groups, some of which received considerable funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, a US body that disperses Congressional money for "democracy building" but which critics say routinely intervenes in the domestic politics of other countries to the detriment of left-wing or left-leaning candidates. In 2002 he was briefly ousted in a military coup that was tacitly supported by Washington and which resulted in the installation of an interim president, Pedro Carmona.

Mr Chavez's opponent Mr Rosales, a state governor, was among those who signed the so-called Carmona Decree supporting the appointment, though he has since said it was a mistake. A campaign strategist, Eliseo Fermin, said Mr Rosales had been advised to sign by a Catholic bishop who said it would be better to support a new president than not to.

Mr Fermin disputed the idea that Mr Rosales's supporters were overwhelmingly middle class. He said the thousands of people who had attended Mr Rosales' campaign rallies showed that if only middle-class people were attending "we would be a developed country". He added: "We are fighting radicalism and we are offering the country a leader who has demonstrated that you can govern for everybody."