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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 August, 2004, 01:45 GMT 02:45 UK
Crunch time for Venezuelans
By James Menendez
BBC, Caracas

Hugo Chavez
President Chavez has exposed fault lines in Venezuelan society
For Venezuelans, Hugo Chavez is man who inspires extreme emotions.

Few are indifferent.

Put simply, people here either love him or they hate him.

And it is those strong emotions that have come close to tearing this country apart.

Those that love the president revere him as a hero.

High up in one of the shanty towns that overlook Caracas, Doris Mendez and her 10-year-old daughter Gidailis wait to see the local doctor. Gidailis is asthmatic.

In the past, the family could not always afford the drugs she needs, and when she had an attack, they struggled to get her to the hospital on time. Few ambulances ever make it up the narrow, winding streets.

"Now," says Doris, "I've got everything right here. If my daughter starts to get a chill or an allergy, I can get hold of the medicine she needs and give it to her straight away."

For that peace of mind, she cannot thank President Chavez enough.

Reforms

Nine months ago, there was no doctor here.

Now, Daisy Machado runs a brand new surgery, right in the heart of the community.

She is part of a programme which has brought thousands of doctors from Cuba to work in the most deprived areas.

Indeed, it is in these areas that Hugo Chavez draws most of his support.

Venezuelan children stand in line at a soup kitchen in the Caracas neighbourhood of La Vega
Chavez has spent millions on social measures such as soup kitchens

Walk around the barrios, as the shanty towns are known, and it is hard to find anybody who says they will not vote for the president in Sunday's referendum.

One elderly man said: "Mr Chavez is the only politician who has ever given a damn about us."

Others, though, have come to hate the president.

People like Flor Pavon, who trained as a lawyer but is now selling socks on the street. She cannot find a proper job and for that she blames the government.

"We're living in a dictatorship," she says. "But this is also a communist state. And that's even worse because dictators don't ruin the economy. Communists do."

Years of conflict

That may sound extreme, but it is a view shared by millions.

President Chavez' opponents have been trying to get rid of him for almost three years.

First, there was a failed coup in 2002 and then early last year, a two-month-long national strike.

The years of turmoil have taken their toll, not just on the economy, but also on friendships and family relationships.

Chavez opposition march through Caracas
The opposition has been trying to get rid of Chavez for years
Sandra Sierra is a journalist for a regional daily newspaper. She says she tries to stay impartial in her work, but she cannot stand Hugo Chavez.

Her friend Robert Poveda, though, is proud to support the president.

They fell out after Sandra was confronted by an angry group of government supporters, or Chavistas as they are known.

She was not badly hurt, but when she turned to Robert for support he refused to take her side. They did not speak for nearly two months.

"What he said to me was really harsh," she says.

"It was like he'd completely forgotten we were best friends."

Robert says he is sorry for what happened, but feels he was unfairly treated.

"Sandra shouldn't have accused me of supporting her attackers. What that did was drive a wedge between us, which I really didn't think we'd get over," he says.

They are talking again now, but not all relationships have survived the crisis.

Divisive

There are stories of marriages breaking up over politics, and parents from one side of the political divide who cannot talk to their children on the other.

There are even cases of physical violence erupting between family members.

According to political analyst Margarita Lopez, the crisis of the last few years has exposed fault lines in society that many Venezuelans did not realise were there.

Banners supporting Chavez in the referendum
It is hard to find anybody in the shanty towns who will not vote for Chavez
"We did not perceive our society as being so divided that you couldn't talk to or understand those on the other side of the political spectrum," she says.

She points to two aggravating factors.

First, the media. Most of the private media in Venezuela have taken an active role in trying to bring down the Chavez government.

That has had the effect of drowning out more moderate voices.

And second, President Chavez himself.

His fiery rhetoric goes down well with his supporters, says Margarita Lopez, but it has alienated much of the middle class and set Venezuelan against Venezuelan.

Sunday's referendum is meant to offer a peaceful, democratic solution to the stand-off.

That depends, to a large degree, on there being a credible result.

But even if the loser accepts the outcome, it is unlikely to end the arguments about how this country should be run.

It will take even longer to heal the divisions that have emerged in the last few years. That could take a generation.


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