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Last Updated: Monday, 27 November 2006, 11:27 GMT
Venezuela: A nation divided
By Nathalie Malinarich
BBC News, Caracas

That Venezuela is a deeply polarised nation is something no-one in the capital, Caracas, seems to dispute.

An giant inflatable doll of Chavez by a campaign stall in Caracas
As campaigning intensifies, the divide gets worse, analysts say
"You'll find siblings who no longer speak to each other because one supports [President Hugo] Chavez and the other doesn't," says a man in the well-heeled Altamira neighbourhood. Like many others, he would rather not be named or photographed.

The tension ahead of the 3 December presidential elections is palpable everywhere.

Talk to a Chavez supporter (Chavista) in Chacao - a municipality where opposition candidate Manuel Rosales has widespread support - and some nervousness can be detected.

"I've heard of people going crazy when they hear you mention the president. They absolutely hate him in these middle-class places," says one Chavista.

In Las Mercedes, another affluent neighbourhood, traffic - slow at the best of times - comes to a standstill as dozens of Chavistas on motorbikes stage a "spontaneous" demonstration.

"It's those damned marginals again," a driver says. "They're always at it."

Go to one of the many shantytowns, or barrios, which hang from the hillsides and you find Rosales supporters being shouted at by Chavistas.

'Power to the poor'

Caracas is perhaps the physical manifestation of the divisions that wrack this oil-rich nation of 26 million people.

Dyed dogs and traffic jams

The middle and upper classes tend to live in the flat, lower-lying areas - many of which look as if they have seen better days. The poor live in the barrios they have had to build for themselves on the surrounding slopes.

But while they live apart, both the poor and the middle classes, Chavistas and anti-Chavistas, complain about high levels of crime and a serious housing shortage.

About half of the urban population live in the precarious barrios that have been spreading in Venezuela's cities for half a century.

Here, where the word revolution crops up frequently, many people have benefited from Mr Chavez's missions, or social programmes.

Abraham Aparicio, a student leader and committed Chavista who comes from a barrio, says the polarisation is partly explained by class divisions.

"Before Chavez, the people who lived in the wealthier neighbourhoods made the poor believe they were marginal and excluded them from everything," he says.

"Now the president wants to give more power to the poor, and the old elites don't like it."

'Navel-gazing'

Power to the people is a recurrent theme in the posters and murals plastered around the city to publicise the administration's achievements - they all include phrases such as "Venezuela now belongs to everyone" and "With Chavez we are all government".

Caracas - a crowded city of 4m people

Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the evening newspaper Tal Cual and a one-time opposition candidate, agrees that in the 20 years before Mr Chavez, "the parties that governed became navel-gazing electoral machines and no longer noticed the horrible impoverishment of the population".

"In that fertile territory, Chavez flourished," Mr Petkoff, who was a left-wing guerrilla in the 1960s, says.

But, he argues: "It's a mistake to imagine that all the poor in Venezuela are with Chavez.

"At the beginning, there may have been a horizontal divide - but not any more. You'll find rich and poor on both sides.

"Both old and new rich back Chavez. I think that in wealthy neighbourhoods some people who speak publicly against Chavez will vote for him because they are making more money than ever."

Uncertainty

The new rich to whom Mr Petkoff refers are known in Venezuela as the "boli-burguesia", or Bolivarian bourgeoisie, because they have made their fortune during Mr Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution".

As Venezuela benefits from high international oil prices, luxury homes and apartment blocks are shooting up in the capital's wealthier neighbourhoods.

VENEZUELA: KEY FACTS
Population: 26m
43% of people living in poverty
75% of export revenues come from oil
There are waiting lists for new cars, and the demand for private jets has reportedly soared, bringing back memories of the oil bonanza of the 1970s.

But critics say that while the economy is growing fast and there is a lot of extra cash around, medium and long-term investment is scarce.

This, they argue, is because no-one knows what is going to happen after the elections, because next year, according to Mr Chavez's plan, is when the revolution truly starts.

Biometrics

The uncertainty is accompanied in many cases by fear, particularly among the middle classes.

Teodoro Petkoff
This is a country in which the opposition and the government do not speak to each other at all - that is very dangerous
Teodoro Petkoff

Chavistas often argue that opposition supporters are just scared their properties will be taken away - something that threats of expropriations do little to assuage - and oppose social equality.

But observers say that the main thing that has prompted many to leave the country is the politicisation of education and the idea that Venezuela may be heading down the Cuban route.

A new biometric voting system is also fuelling fears among some.

The electoral authorities say electronic fingerprinting is necessary to avoid fraud.

The opposition says this will allow the government to see how each person votes and could stop people voting against Mr Chavez for fear of reprisals.

They cite the case of the Tascon list, which identified all those who added their signatures to a call for a 2004 referendum on Mr Chavez's rule and led to them being barred from government jobs and access to some public services.

No dialogue

While opposition supporters - and many privately-owned media outlets - allege fraud and intimidation, Chavistas accuse Mr Rosales and his followers of preparing for violence.

Pro-government media often carry reports of what they say is evidence of plans for a coup or lists of people plotting to assassinate the president, including not only the opposition, but also the Bush administration.

The polarisation in evidence today, according to Mr Petkoff, was created by a government that reacted against its adversaries in "a very brutal, aggressive and intolerant way".

"The first criticisms were received with a very tough and even insulting language which started to generate answers in the same tone," he says.

It was also caused, Mr Petkoff says, by the fact that some sectors did not accept that Mr Chavez had won an election in 1998 and designed undemocratic strategies to get rid of him.

"This, fed by an aggressive president, created a terrifying split.

"This is a country in which the opposition and the government do not speak to each other at all. That is very dangerous," he says.




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