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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 23:26 GMT 00:26 UK
Poll divides Venezuela's rich and poor
By Mike Ceaser
In Caracas, Venezuela

Ana Uzcategui
Subsidised shopping has bought the votes of the poor

Ana Uzcategui emerges from a government-run Mercal supermarket in downtown Caracas carrying two sacks heavy with rice, sardines, spaghetti and flour.

"Here, they sell things cheaper," says Mrs Uzcategui, a 43-year-old housewife. The same money "buys me double", compared to a private store.

With an 15 August recall vote on his presidency just around the corner, Hugo Chavez hopes the bargains from the government's subsidised market will put Mrs Uzcategui's vote in the bag, too.

To make certain, the front of this supermarket is emblazoned with a huge red "No", reminding shoppers to vote against the recall

Like many Venezuelans on low incomes, Mrs Uzcategui needs no prompting.

"Chavez seems like a good president to me," she says, smiling.

Polls apart

On Sunday, Venezuelans go to the polls to choose whether or not to cut short Mr Chavez's term, which runs until the end of 2006.

To unseat him, the opposition must win a majority of the vote and also gather more votes than the 3.8 million Mr Chavez received in his 2000 re-election.

Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez has seen off challenges in the past
Even then, Mr Chavez might still defeat the opposition coalition, if courts let him stand in the presidential elections to follow a month later.

The subsidised food markets the government has opened throughout the nation are just one small part of its oil-financed spending spree.

In the sprawling slum above the Mercal, Cuban doctors provide free health care and residents build homes with government-provided materials.

A few miles away in central Caracas, 15 adults enrolled in a government literacy course watch a video on a large new television.

Nearby, the capital's underground railway is being expanded and its pitted streets repaved.

Oil slick

Late last year, Mr Chavez's approval rating fluctuated between 30% and 40%, and his electoral chances looked dim.

But then oil prices hit record highs, filling the state's coffers and financing a plethora of programmes popular with the nation's poor majority.

Supporters of the recall motion
The middle classes want Mr Chavez out...
High oil prices have also enabled Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, to rebound strongly from a two-month opposition petroleum strike which crippled the nation's economy in late 2002, but failed in its goal of forcing out Mr Chavez.

Nevertheless, the high oil prices have achieved no miracles for a one-product economy which has been shrinking for decades.

Unemployment remains at about 20%, and pavements are crowded with people selling pirated CDs and renting telephones.

Inflation is also over 20 percent - despite price controls which farmers say make it unprofitable to bring products to market.

Ups and downs

And this year's boom may be only a blip in Venezuela's long economic decline, which has seen per-capita income drop 23% over the past decade.

... the poor want him to stay
In 2000, nearly half of Venezuelans lived on less than $2 per day.

Such widespread poverty amidst oil riches swept the charismatic Mr Chavez and his "Bolivarian Revolution for the Poor" to landslide election victories in 1998 and 2000.

Today, businesses have shut up shop, investment has fled and poverty has deepened.

Once immigrants poured in from Southern Europe and the Caribbean; now, hundreds of thousands of moneyed Venezuelans have left for Europe or Florida.

Shopped out

Caracas department store owner Tomas Friedlander says his sales have dropped 40% over the past two years.

The government's foreign exchange controls and a law prohibiting reducing staff haven't helped, either.

"The reason we've survived is that a lot of other stores in the area have shut down," Mr Friedlander says.

"I'm hoping that after Sunday we're going to get a better government."

But working at a pavement stall a few streets away, Franklin Fagundez lists the reasons he's grateful to Mr Chavez.

In his poor neighbourhood, the government has opened subsidized cafeterias; one of his relatives received a free zinc roof; and Cuban doctors provide medical care.

"Thanks to Chavez, I have this stand in the street," he says. "Other governments didn't permit it."

Chicken-coop politics

The Chavez government has created jobs. In particular, it has distributed land to poor peasants and organized farming and manufacturing cooperatives.

Franklin Fagundez
Small entrepreneurs say the Chavez government gives them hope
But pavement stalls and garden plots fall short of the modern, industrialised economy many envision for this major petroleum exporter.

Mr Chavez's critics have branded his gardening programme "medieval" and ridiculed his call for city dwellers to build "vertical chicken coops" on their rooftops.

If the opposition manages to replace Mr Chavez, it can be expected to try to increase petroleum exports and embrace the Washington-backed free trade agreements which he has denounced as exploitative.

Opposition leaders have said they will "re-evaluate" populist programmes and preserve only the ones considered effective.

Controversial policies such as the redistribution of farmland to landless peasants are almost certain to end, and Cuban doctors will find the environment much less amenable.




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