Chavez Seen as Easy Winner in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is expected to coast to re-election in upcoming elections. Even in the wealthy state of Zulia, which traditionally has been an opposition stronghold, Chavez is gaining strength.

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The opposition in the presidential election in Venezuela has mobilized an unexpectedly spirited campaign drawing huge crowds after years of disunity. Its leading standard barrier is the governor from the wealthy state of Zulia, which traditionally has been an opposition stronghold.

But NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to Zulia's capital, Maracaibo, and reports that even in a place that fiercely holds itself apart, the revolution inspired by President Hugo Chavez is making itself felt.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The state of Zulia, tucked in the northwest corner of Venezuela, borders Columbia. It's set apart geographically and temperamentally, hugging the shores of oil-rich Lake Maracaibo with industries like this cement factory that churned 24 hours a day.

Zulia's capitalist bent and independent streak inspire comparisons to Texas. But even in this bastion of opposition, the Chavez revolution is quietly burrowing its way into the hearts and minds.

Early one morning this week in a distressed section of town, patients all wearing eye patches of bloodstained gauze spilled from the Milagros hotel. The Lonely Planet travel guide warns readers, Don't expect miracles here, despite its name.

But this dingy waystation borders on the miraculous for many. Patients recuperate after eye surgery here, while their doctors are billeted down the hall.

Ramiro Garcia is among those congregated on the gas-fumed curbside waiting to be taken for a hospital checkup. Garcia, a chauffeur with cataracts, says the hospital bused him here from his home eight hours away, provided food, a room, and his eye operation - all for free.

Mr. RAMIRO GARCIA (Chauffeur): (Through translator): We don't have the means to pay for a hospital or a clinic to get this kind of care. And I am thankful to President Chavez. He has taken us, the middle class and poor people (unintelligible) and you can see the benefits of his care.

MCCARTHY: By earmarking the oil-swollen national treasury for programs like this, Chavez has an almost demigod status among the poor, which analyst say virtually guarantees his reelection tomorrow.

But supporters of leading opposition candidate Manuel Rosales accuse Chavez of using the countries oil wells to buy allegiance and a victory that will consolidate government control over the private sector.

Zulia is bracing for the countries strongest anti-Chavez stand.

(Soundbite of music)

MCCARTHY: As they did last week in Caracas, Rosales supporters thronged the streets of Maracaibo for the closing of the campaign Wednesday. Venezuela's disparate opposition has shown rare unity this time around.

Analysts put it down more to fear and loathing of Chavez than of any deep feelings for Rosales. The father of 10 and Zulia governor has a raspy voice and bland demeanor that make him no match for the baritone singing president who electrifies crowds.

Just as Chavez demonized the opposition as Washington's flunkeys, Rosales resorts to the rhetoric that has Chavez playing the Castro puppet, intent on destroying democracy. It is a well-worn argument that oppositions supporters like Celeste Somoso(ph) easily invoke.

Ms. CELESTE SOMOSO (Rosales Supporter): You can't tell the difference between communist and democracy. This is just point blank, point blank. There is no other way to explain it. It is freedom, freedom for people. He is a true democrat...

MCCARTHY: Chavez insisted at a press conference this week that this is not a dictatorship, this is a democracy. But Nester Suarez(ph), a former 1990s finance minister turned cattle rancher, says Chavez has stoked a dangerous socioeconomic divide.

Mr. NESTER SUAREZ (Former Finance Minister): Real serious, because there is a fight between classes in Venezuela that Chavez has created and built in the last eight years, because he needs that market in order to control the whole society. That is the point.

MCCARTHY: The chauffeur with the bandaged eye and warm spot for Hugo Chavez worries that the country's unity is fragile and fraying. Ramiro Garcia says his support for President Chavez should not be mistaken as disrespect for the opposition, but rather only a difference of opinion.

Mr. GARCIA: (Through translation): The fact that I support Chavez doesn't mean that I want to control those who are against him. To the contrary. There has been so much confrontation in the world, people against people. Here there is a big brotherhood. We are all Venezuelan.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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