Andrew Buncombe: The man who divides his nation in two

In Venezuela, no one shrugs their shoulders when you ask them about Hugo Chavez


It came without warning, it was delivered with a rare vehemence and it served as a perfect insight into the polarisation that exists in Venezuela as the country prepares to go to the polls.

Stopping for a coffee outside of Las Adjuntas subway station on the outskirts of Caracas, I was engaged by a cheerful 65-year-old property owner called Julio who wanted to make clear the menace represented by his country's president, Hugo Chavez.

Chavez wanted to turn the country into Cuba, declared Julio. Chavez wanted to seize property from people like him, Chavez wanted to destroy democracy. And then, before he marched off into the bright afternoon, Julio concluded with this: "If Chavez wins I hope the military kicks the balls out of him. Anybody would be better than Chavez."

Such words are not taken lightly in Venezuela where Chavez - himself the leader of a failed coup attempt - was previously the victim of an uprising that in 2002 briefly resulted in the installation of an interim president. But his views were all the more startling because, just an hour or two earlier, I had listened as one after another of the city's poorest citizens lined up to explain how this very same man had helped deliver them from poverty and despair.

In one of the thousands of "missions" that Chavez has established using the country's oil wealth to feed and educate the country's impoverished, one 55-year-old woman stated that none of Venezuela's previous leaders had ever cared about them. "Nobody gave us anything," she said.

Polls taken before Sunday's election suggest Chavez will be easily re-elected, beating his nearest rival Manuel Rosales, and securing perhaps 60 per cent of the vote. Yet, both inside and outside Venezuela, Mr Chavez remains a deeply polarising figure. The deep affection for the President felt by his overwhelmingly poor supporters, who say he is trying to make the country fairer, is matched by a virulent dislike felt by many of his mainly middle-class critics, who claim he is a megalomaniac. In two days of interviewing random people about how they will vote on Sunday, nobody said they were undecided. In Venezuela no one shrugs their shoulders when you ask them about Hugo Chavez.

Perhaps this is not a surprise. Much of the narrative of Latin America is about the disparity between rich and poor, between those who exercise influence and those without a voice. Nowhere is this divide more stark than in Venezuela's capital, a booming, traffic-clogged city where the rich lead a life of ease, yet where the poor have been marginalised - condemned to the thin-walled barrios that cling to the mountains encircling the city. More than one-third of the population survives on less than $2 a day.

Here Chavez's social programmes have had genuine results. According to government statistics collated by the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, the poverty rate has fallen from 42 per cent of households when Chavez was first elected, to 33.9 per cent this year. About 47 per cent of the population can buy subsidised food, while free health clinics have recorded 158 million visits. About 1.5 million adults have been taught to read.

There may be a more sophisticated prism through which to view this election, but at its most reductive the situation comes down to this: Chavez will be re-elected because he has delivered to his constituency. His constituency is the poor and there are more poor people in Venezuela than rich. Some might term that populism but one can also call it responsive politics.

Alongside this, how valid are the criticisms of Chavez? Some, clearly, are more valid than others. He has, for instance, added to the polarisation with the Chavistas' "with us or against us" rhetoric; he has blurred the line between state and party with the missions stuffed full of pro-Chavez election material and, surely, anyone who celebrates Chavez's three previous victories at the ballot box and the country's largely unfettered media should question his relationship with an unelected Cuban regime, which suppresses free speech and imprisons democracy activists. Questions can also be asked about the level of corruption and what has Chavez done to tackle Caracas's serious problems with crime.

But does Chavez genuinely wish to turn Venezuela into Cuba? His campaign spokesman, perhaps unsurprisingly, insisted that was not his plan. And there was a more solid indication last summer - when Chavez rapidly distanced himself from a plan to seize the land owned by a Caracas golf course - that his plans for nationalising private property and businesses are perhaps more limited than one might assume.

Moreover, it is hard to see why he would wish to. The economy is soaring in Venezuela, growth this year will almost top 10 per cent. Caracas is experiencing an extraordinary boom in property prices, sales of new cars are this year expected to double, and neighbourhoods such as Altamira are awash with newly opened art galleries and restaurants.

One of the many ironies about Venezuela and its impassioned, provocative leader who taunts George Bush and likens him to the devil, who rallies against Washington's interference in Venezuelan politics yet sells 60 per cent of his country's oil exports to the US, is that business is truly booming. It is that boom that has helped Hugo Chavez deliver to the poor. It is that boom that will see him re-elected.

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