Ring of steel in Caracas as Venezuela goes to polls: Security and graft the main issues in a contest clouded by recent coup bids

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The Independent Online
IT WAS hard to tell whether the noises were pistol shots or what locals call traquitraquis (firework rockets) but the would-be voters queuing in the dingy Caracas barrio of San Agustin did not flinch. 'We've become experts at batting bullets,' said Marta Rivera, a housewife, swinging an imaginary baseball bat. 'In this barrio it's plomo (lead) from morning to night. There were five people killed in the neighbourhood during the night and that was average. It's plomo, plomo, plomo.'

Mrs Rivera, among early voters waiting outside the Elias Rodriguez school-turned-polling-station in San Agustin yesterday morning, was expressing what for most Venezuelans was the key issue in yesterday's presidential and general elections - a complete breakdown of law and order. Troops and national guardsmen made a visit to the area relatively safe on election day; outsiders would rarely venture through the barrio and certainly not at night.

'We don't let our own kids play in the streets after dark,' said Maria Elena, also in the queue. 'This is worse than Sarajevo. A bullet came into my bathroom the other night, just missing my head. It's the delinquents who rule here.' Maria Elena was going to vote for el Negro , the nickname given to Claudio Fermin, candidate of the Democratic Action party, for which Carlos Andres Perez, now suspended on corruption charges, was elected five years ago and which will rule until 2 February under the acting president, Ramon Velasquez.

Largely as a result of Mr Perez's demise, Mr Fermin's chances of victory were minimal but that did not deter Maria Elena. 'The cockroach is dead. We killed him off with insecticide.' She was referring to the tag given by his opponents to Rafael Caldera, 77, the candidate most polls predicted would win the presidential race, though with perhaps little more than 20 per cent of votes cast. Of the 10 million eligible voters, up to 40 per cent were expected to stay away, some through fear, others through disillusionment with corruption of past leaders.

According to a television network exit poll last night, Mr Caldera got 29.5 per cent of the vote.

Official corruption was the other big issue in yesterday's vote. All four leading candidates, of a total of 17 in the presidential race, had seized on the issue, none more so than the fiery former trade unionist Andres Velasquez, candidate of the left-wing Causa R (Radical). Mr Velasquez was running joint second in pre-election opinion polls with Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, candidate of the Christian Democratic Copei party. Mr Fermin, whose Democratic Action party has swapped power with Copei throughout Venezuela's 35 years of democracy, was trailing a distant fourth, while the remaining 13 candidates were essentially making up the numbers.

Among the latter was the respected sexologist Fernando Bianco, known for his pronouncements that if Venezuelans had more sex there might be less violence and corruption. Citing Mr Paz's campaign slogan pa'lante (Let's move forward), Venezuelans have given Dr Bianco the slogan pa'dentro, in the context roughly translatable as 'Let's stick it in.'

Although Mr Caldera was a founder of Copei and ruled at the head of a Copei government from 1969 to 1974, he split with the party this year. Yesterday he ran on the ticket of a new grouping called Convergence, a coalition including far- rightists, Communists and the Marxist guerrillas Mr Caldera helped crush in the early 1970s.

Because Convergence includes 17 parties, Mr Caldera's face appeared 17 times on ballot slips that included each party's colours and slogan. The colours were for the illiterate, but many educated voters had trouble with the system, including votes for the Senate, the Lower House and state legislatures.

Security forces, backed by armour, sealed off the centre of Caracas yesterday and troops guarded every polling station in the country.

With a kind of pro-democracy overkill based on two failed coups last year, the polls opened at 5.30am. Queues were huge by midday as soldiers checked voters for weapons and it took around 10 minutes for each person to cast the complicated ballots.

Leading article, page 13