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Venezuela's Chavez hangs on

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Venezuela's Chavez hangs on


Is Venezuela ready to move on from Chavez? He has been in power for 14 years, and would be happy to stay there. A referendum in 2009 removed the two-term limit for presidents.

In the persona of anti-capitalist crusader, his charisma has been reinforced by oil-financed massive state spending for the poor, on social programmes including free health clinics, new universities, homes, cash handouts and reducing food prices.

Chavez is 58. His opposition challenger is 40: Henrique Capriles, a state governor.

The business-friendly law graduate Capriles has promised to swap Chavez’s self-styled socialist revolution and a state-led economy for a pragmatic balance between social welfare and free enterprise.

Capriles has mostly avoided direct confrontation with the giant Chavez. But at a last pre-poll rally, he asked the crowd how many of its problems Chavez had solved.

Nationalisations have weakened private enterprise and given ruling party insiders control over jobs. The law is weakly applied, and millions of weapons have made Venezuela more violent than some war-zones. There is social inequality on a vast scale.

Claiming the world’s largest crude reserves, Venezuela pumps some three million barrels per day, and there are some 300 billion barrels of proven reserves where that came from, more than fellow OPEC member Saudi Arabia. The national income is nine tenths based on oil.

Chavez borrowed on it. The 37 billion dollar-debt when he was first elected reached 95 billion last year.

His spending cut unemployment and poverty and boosted the country, but critics say frequent power blackouts – for example – are a reminder of resources squandered.

Chavez recently admitted he had made errors, notably not diversifying from oil, and he promised that his next government would be better than ever.

His health may be another matter. Operated on for cancer tumours at least twice since June 2011, he has kept details secret from almost everybody.

From voters to bondholders and foreign oil companies itching to tap into Venezuela crude, they have been left in the dark on Chavez’s exact condition.

Apart from that, opposition leaders say they see little risk of fraud during the electronic balloting itself. There will be no formal international observation of the vote.

Chavez has won votes many times before, but he was inexhaustible then.

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