Chavez plays populist card for election

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez salutes during the visit of Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on 2 June 2012. Picture: AFP
SABANETA - To get an understanding of why President Hugo Chavez may win yet another election in Venezuela next month, go and sit under the mango trees of Los Rastrojos or Sabaneta.

There, in the rural villages of his childhood at the heart of Venezuela's great savannah or "llanos," family and friends pour out tales of a boy whose motor-mouth and popular touch, now mainstays of his rule, were evident early on.

Guillermo Frias recalls with glee how he and cousin "Huguito" ("little Hugo") played baseball in the dirt street using their arms for bats, and molding rubber from trees into homemade balls. "He always talked the most," Frias laughs.

An aunt, Brigida Frias, recalls Chavez's boyhood love of kites and drawing, and shows where the idealistic young adult used to lay in a hammock during earnest conversations.

It is in those placid, sun-baked plains where Chavez the man, and Chavez the myth, both began - and went on to polarize Venezuela like never before.

It is that image, the country boy who became president and then spent years trying to help the underprivileged, which Chavez wants uppermost in the minds of voters on October 7.

His foes' ability to puncture that image, tap into disappointment with Chavez among the poor, and present their counter-image of a man whose socialist experiment has collapsed into shoddy autocracy, will determine their success.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' tactic of targeting Chavez's heartlands for campaigning has given him a fighting chance: most of the traditional polls put Chavez ahead, but they also show Capriles creeping up, and one has him neck and neck.

The romantic, affectionate view of Chavez in Sabaneta is echoed to varying degrees in city slums and poor rural areas across the country where the president is most popular.

It is also matched by the equally deep-felt hatred toward him in other parts of the nation he has ruled since 1999.

For those tales, go to the golf clubs and other bastions of high society where his name is a dirty word and talk revolves around who else plans to emigrate if Chavez beats Capriles to secure a new six-year term.


For a view based less on class identity, step into the half-built Caracas shopping centre where hundreds of refugees from 2010 floods are still waiting, ever more desperate, for the government to deliver on a promise of new homes.

"Promises, promises, is all we hear," says Julietta Rodriguez, 37, in another temporary refugee shelter on the coast where she and four children have waited two years for new homes.

"I always voted for Chavez, I loved him, now I don't know. Capriles looks competent and young. Maybe he deserves a chance."

The election will be decided on how far such disenchantment, and the accumulation of day-to-day problems such as power cuts and crime, outweigh Chavez fans' still deep affection for the man and their reliance on his hugely popular welfare programs.

Politically astute despite his often cartoon image abroad, Chavez constantly reminds Venezuelans of his roots in the sleepy farming heartlands that form the national identity and culture.

The 58-year-old leader speaks in the jokey, anecdote-laden style of the "llaneros." He sings their songs and plays their musical instruments.

He tells stories of ancestors who fought among dashing horseback fighters at the vanguard of Venezuela's independence army and later guerrilla movements.

In a nation whose most famous novel, "Dona Barbara," is a story of magic realism in the cattle-ranching plains, Chavez also recounts fantastical tales such as that of a supposedly giant, deer-eating snake that nearly crushed him as a baby in his crib.

Even foes recognize his charisma and connection with the poor. They are also quick to point out the bullying side of his character - the man who vows to "pulverize" foes and harangues businessmen with takeover threats on live TV.

That, they say, is the true Chavez.

"What you have in Venezuela is gross and systematic violation of human rights," opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said.