CARACAS, Venezuela — As crucial elections approach, President Hugo Chavez is ratcheting up attacks on opposition forces and wielding other polarizing tactics to distract Venezuelans from the nation's glaring problems, including soaring inflation and a record-high crime rate.
Chavez has expelled the U.S. ambassador, labeled the U.S. economic crisis as representative of capitalism's failures and alleged once again that he's the target of an assassination plot while hurling insults at his political rivals.
As in past elections, analysts say that Chavez wants the Nov. 23 vote to be a referendum on himself, to capitalize on his personal popularity. With that strategy, they say, he hopes to distract voters from his unpopular policies and the day-to-day misery of their lives.
"Chavez wants people to forget about the potholes in the street, the electric blackouts, the water shortages, the trash in the streets and the rising insecurity," said Luis Vicente Leon, an independent Caracas-based pollster. "Chavez wants the campaign focused on him, because his approval rating has risen from 46 percent in January to 58 percent. He's trying to polarize the electorate. He's tried this approach before, and it has worked."
The elections are important for several reasons, analysts said. Chavez and his political allies are trying to retain their near-total control of Venezuela's levers of power.
After he suffered his first-ever electoral defeat in a referendum last December to rewrite the Constitution, a second loss would further embolden the opposition and complicate Chavez's plans for holding another referendum next year to get voters' approval to lift term limits. Chavez currently can't seek re-election when his term ends in 2012.
Building his political strength at home also allows him to continue expanding his anti-U.S. alliance throughout Latin America, using petro dollars.
In the Caricuao neighborhood of Caracas last Saturday, Chavez supporters used heavy-handed tactics.
A sound truck blaring campaign jingles for Antonio Ledezma, the opposition candidate for mayor, wound slowly up a hill toward a slum neighborhood, where Ledezma was planning to campaign.
As the truck reached a bend in the road, red-shirted Chavez supporters brandishing pistols jumped in front of the vehicle, forcing it to stop. They smashed the windshield, knifed the tires and fired five shots into the truck's back compartment.
"I was afraid for my life," driver Williams Gonzalez said, still shaking a few minutes later.
These Chavez supporters who zip about on motorcycles are known as the "motorized force." One of them later blamed Ledezma and his allies for provoking the assault.
"They can carry out their campaign, but not here," said Nestor Chacon, who identified himself as a member of the motorized force, though he said he didn't see the attack. "The barrios belong to Chavez."
Ledezma had to cancel that campaign event.
A day later, Carlos Ocariz, an opposition candidate for mayor of Sucre, an impoverished Caracas subdivision, had to scoot into a trailing security vehicle when Chavez supporters began hurling rocks at Ocariz's campaign workers and him.
"The government wants to polarize the country," Ocariz said later, sipping coffee in a bakery. "They want to make it into a referendum on Chavez, because he's more popular than his candidates. We want to focus on concrete proposals by our candidates."
Ocariz's approach seems to be working. A survey last week by Datanalisis, Leon's polling company, showed Ocariz leading Chavez's former minister of information by 16 points.
Crime and the economy are helping Ocariz and other opposition candidates, particularly in Caracas. Inflation there has reached 35 percent — the highest in Latin America — and crime has spun so far out of control that Foreign Policy magazine recently labeled Caracas the world's murder capital.
"You're worried when you go out at night," said Raquel Ledezma, a 59-year-old unemployed government office worker who was campaigning with Ocariz. "A lot of young men have been killed."
At stake in the election are 22 of Venezuela's 23 governorships — Chavez allies won all but two of those races in 2004 — and some 320 mayoral offices, most now held by Chavistas.
Among the more intriguing opposition candidates is Chavez's ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez. The former first lady is running for mayor of Barquisimeto, the capital of Lara state, west of Caracas. Leon said his polls found that she had a shot at winning.
A bellwether race is in Chavez's native state, Barinas. One of his brothers is campaigning to succeed their father as governor against a one-time Chavez supporter.
Anibal Romero, a political scientist at Caracas' Metropolitan University, predicted that Chavez would lose up to eight of the governorships and more than 100 mayoral races.
"That would be a defeat for Chavez because he doesn't want to see any mayor's offices or governorships in opposition hands," Romero said.
Besides control of the executive branch and most local and state offices, Chavez allies control the military, the Central Bank, the judiciary and all but seven seats in the Congress.
A Chavez-appointed court infuriated the opposition in August by disqualifying several of its strongest candidates because of corruption charges that the opposition labeled as politically motivated. Leopoldo Lopez, the telegenic mayor of the Caracas subdivision of Chacao, was leading the race to be the mayor of metropolitan Caracas until the court barred him from running.
Venezuelans first elected Chavez president 10 years ago. They were fed up with the failure of the country's two traditional political parties to use Venezuela's oil wealth to build an economy that benefited everyone.
As president, Chavez has used the state's record oil income with an eye to winning support at home and outside Venezuela.
He's nationalized telephone, dairy and cement companies, tilting the country far to the left.
He's handed out billions of dollars to the poor in Venezuela and given billions more to friendly governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and elsewhere. In turn, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors and nurses to provide free health care in Venezuela's slums.
A charismatic leader, Chavez reminds impoverished Venezuelans that he, too, comes from humble origins. Many ordinary citizens think that Venezuela finally has a president who cares about them.
"He's the only president who has given everyone a chance to participate in the system," said Mario Montilla, a 40-year-old construction worker in Sucre. "The Cuban doctors give good health care. Elderly people get high school degrees through the missions."
Alejandro Gomez, a 26-year-old auto mechanic in Sucre, complained that he and his family frequently find themselves without running water. But he still supports Chavez.
"He paved our street two years ago," Gomez said as he downed a Polar Ice beer on a humid afternoon. "He's brought a lot of benefits to people."
However, pollster Alfredo Keller said most Venezuelans didn't like Chavez's close ties with Cuba, his socialist policies or his failure to reduce crime.
Disillusionment with Chavez's shortcomings led to his defeat in last year's referendum. Many of his supporters simply stayed home, said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Venezuela's Eastern University.
"Chavez is making the rounds to make sure that that doesn't happen again," Ellner said.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2008