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Venezuelan Voters Divided on Socio-Economic Lines

  • Michael Bowman

Days before a presidential election, Venezuela's electorate finds itself divided, in large part, along socio-economic lines. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Caracas, the class-based polarization comes at a time of unprecedented petroleum wealth in the South American nation.

It is not uncommon for elections to cause people to band together according to economic interests. But perhaps nowhere in Latin America are class divisions more clearly exposed than in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez, a self-styled champion of the poor, is running for re-election.

At a final campaign speech in Caracas, the populist socialist firebrand lauded Cuba's Fidel Castro and called supporters of his opponent, state governor Manuel Rosales, "counter-revolutionaries."

He said, "There is no room for any project in Venezuela other than the Bolivarian revolution. That is our destination: a socialist Venezuela."

Among the country's wealthy elite, Mr. Chavez' words are commonly viewed as attempts to stoke class warfare. In an upscale Caracas shopping mall, graphic designer Fernando Hernandez openly admits his unease.

"We Venezuelans who are lucky to have been educated and to have achieved a desirable position in society are worried that it will be taken from us," he said. "Yes, there is poverty. It exists everywhere. Those of us who are well off are not to blame. But that has been the vision of this government: to blame those of us who are not poor for the poverty of others."

Such expressions of concern evoke little sympathy from Silvia Mendez, a fervent Chavez-backer and volunteer campaigner. She lauds the president for programs aimed at boosting the health, education and overall welfare of the poor, and sees nothing wrong with expropriations or other measures targeting those who are better off.

"Of course they fear him [Chavez] because he is empowering the people," she says. "And the rich will not have a monopoly [on power] as they used to."

According to Caracas-based political analyst and public opinion pollster Jose Vicente Leon, President Chavez benefits politically from polarization between economic classes in a country where three-fourths of the population is poor.

"If Chavez manages to divide society and gain the backing of the poor, he wins," Leon says.

In fact, most pre-election polls project victory for Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and has survived a coup attempt and a recall referendum.

Manuel Rosales, who temporarily stepped down as governor of Venezuela's oil-rich Zulia State to pursue the presidency, has by no means shunned populist messages of his own. Perhaps his best-known proposal is the direct distribution of Venezuela's oil wealth to the people through a government-issued debit card.

But Rosales has made clear he does not share Mr. Chavez' vision of a socialist Venezuela.

"Have you seen on television how people die on the sea trying to flee Cuba, searching for freedom? And that is what they [Chavez' people] want for Venezuela: a president who is in power until he dies of old age, with only one political party holding our children's future hostage," he says.

To be sure, there are wealthy Venezuelans who back President Chavez, and poorer Venezuelans who plan to vote for the opposition. In addition, socio-economic lines have been blurred somewhat by a recent surge in Venezuela's oil revenues, which have spawned a cadre of newly-wealthy citizens.

Nevertheless, divisions - and passions - run deep. The closest to any sort of conciliatory expression this reporter has heard in Caracas came from an adolescent too young to vote: 16-year-old Maribel Morales.

"I am with Chavez. Some say Chavez will win, others say Rosales will win. Only God knows. But whoever wins, may he bring a better future to Venezuela," she says.

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