Chavez likely to win Venezuela's election

Social programs widely popular

December 03, 2006|By Chris Kraul | Chris Kraul,Los Angeles Times

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The United States had better get used to its Latin American nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. If, as expected, he wins re-election to a new six-year term today, he says he will seek a change in the constitution that would enable him to serve indefinitely.

As many as 14 million Venezuelans go to the polls today to choose between Chavez and Manuel Rosales, the scrappy governor of Zulia state. Rosales started his campaign late but has fared better than many expected in re-energizing a badly fragmented, dispirited opposition. Still, surveys show Chavez ahead by margins ranging from 4 to 22 percentage points.

Rosales' only hope of victory lies in capturing large numbers of undecided voters.

Many U.S. citizens know Chavez through his diatribes against President Bush. But the key to his support lies in the redistribution of Venezuela's immense oil windfall. He is spending one-third of Venezuela's annual $130 billion in economic output on social outreach, public works and food and housing subsidies, and he is expected to reap electoral dividends.

Chavez claims to have added 4 million people to the payrolls since he took office, the vast majority through social outreach programs called "missions": worker-owned cooperatives and public works programs.

Those government-supported jobs could vanish with a decline in the price of oil, critics say, adding that private investment, industrial output and the creation of new, skilled jobs have declined under Chavez's socialist policies.

"What we are seeing is state-led growth, very vulnerable in the medium and long term to a downturn in oil prices," said Michael Penfold, a political scientist at a graduate studies college here known by its Spanish initials IESA. "We are far more dependent on oil than 12, 15 years ago, and that's what worries me."

Chavez is getting credit for making today's election more transparent than those in the past, agreeing to the auditing of half of all ballot boxes and to the presence of more than 1,000 foreign and national electoral observers.

The biggest fear, expressed by Chavez and opposition leaders, is a vote is so close that neither side accepts defeat, which could lead to turmoil similar to what has occurred in Mexico.

Chris Kraul writes for The Los Angeles Times.

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