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Hometown hero: Chavez 10 years on

30 January 09 15:27 GMT

By Will Grant
BBC News, Sabaneta

Searching for members of the opposition in the Venezuelan town of Sabaneta is a hot and thankless task. And ultimately, a pretty fruitless one.

Most people in this small town are fiercely proud of their favourite son, Hugo Chavez, who was first sworn into the presidency on 2 February 1999.

Sabaneta lies in the heart of the Venezuelan plains and is a ramshackle collection of streets surrounded by the sweeping savannah grasslands known as los llanos.

This is cattle-rearing country, and the socialist president's roots are in this rural setting.

It was here that he formed his first friendships and many of the people he ran around with as a boy in the late 1950s and early 1960s still live in the town.

"We went to primary school together at the Escuela Julian Pino," said Hely Rafael Lucena, 58, who breeds roosters for cock-fighting, "and he stood out even then."

There was no obvious sign that "Huguito" Chavez Frias would go on to become such a major figure in Latin America, but he did show leadership qualities as a child, according to Mr Lucena.

"Hugo was a very serious boy, but very bright and he always wanted things to be just so. He was quite particular about planning and everything had to be done properly or not at all," Mr Lucena said, against the constant crowing of the caged birds.

In a house a little further down the road lives one of President Chavez's aunts.

Responding to our tentative knock on the door, the 80-year-old sister of Mr Chavez's mother, Juaquina Frias, ushered us into the backyard where her grandchildren are playing.

If Mr Chavez's life has changed incomparably since his provincial upbringing, his aunt continues to live very simply, in the same home she has had for the past 40 years.

For the best part of an hour she regaled us with stories of her nephew's youth, how proud she was of his rise to power, and how happy she felt to see him became "a great person" in Venezuela.

"I remember when he first won the presidency 10 years ago. We were so surprised - he surprised everyone. But what he has which is so important is that he has given people their belief back again, especially the poor and the elderly."

"People here love him," she said and, referring to her strong Christian faith, added, "like they love the Pope".

'Royal family'

But while the story in Sabaneta is one of almost undiluted hero-worship, a short drive away, in the state capital of Barinas, feelings towards President Chavez are noticeably more hostile.

Mr Chavez moved to Barinas after living in Sabaneta, and it was here that he enrolled as a military cadet.

During a traditional barbeque, or parrilla, thrown by furniture maker Julio Cesar Angulo, the conversation soon turns to the president and the extent of his family's power in the region.

Mr Chavez's father, also called Hugo, was twice state governor, a position now held by his elder brother, Adan. Another brother, Anibal, is the mayor of Sabaneta.

"We call them the royal family," said Mr Angulo, "because they own so much property in Barinas and the top job passes between father and son."

The opposition have levelled a series of accusations of corruption against the Chavez family, claims the president robustly denies.

The government says the political powers held by other members of the Chavez family were achieved by the strength of their support at the ballot box alone.

In recent local elections, Adan Chavez was run very close for the governorship of their home state by Julio Cesar Reyes, a former-Chavez supporter who broke away from the United Socialist Party to set up his own party, Gente Emergente.

For Mr Angulo, the forthcoming referendum, set for 15 February, on whether to grant the president and all state governors the right to stand for indefinite re-election is part of a wider effort by the Chavez family to consolidate their hold on power.

"He's had 10 years in office already. At the end of this term, it'll be 14. Surely that's enough. How many years does one president need? We need alternatives, we need a spread of different options - not just Chavez followed by more Chavez," he said.

"In the national anthem, there's a line which says 'follow the example of Caracas'," Mr Angulo continued. "Well, the government just lost the race for mayor of Caracas."

Back in Sabaneta, such talk is sacrilege.

The president has won every vote he has put in front of the residents of his home town, and can count on their continued support this time around.

"As you know, we're cock fighters and this is going to be like one of our championship fights," said Mr Lucena.

"But here in Sabaneta, the "Yes" will receive more than 80%. He's our president, and we want him to stay."

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