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Venezuela’s presidential election is coming Sunday. The firebrand incumbent, Hugo Chávez, is facing his toughest challenge since coming to office 14 years ago. The eastern oil-producing region has been one of Chávez’s traditional strongholds, but polls show some of the eastern states moving away from Chávez. Steven Bodzin reports from Puerto la Cruz.
The seaside city of Puerto la Cruz has long been Chávez country. Lamp posts are hung with Chávez banners and billboards. Red, the colour of Chávez’s party, is everywhere. Crews demolishing buildings or sweeping streets all wear bright red T-shirts and red caps with Chávez campaign slogans. The mayor and governor also support the president.
I’m here because this part of the country used to give the president more than 60 percent support. The region has plenty of votes, but it’s even more important because it contains the world’s biggest oil reserves. The government has spent endless hours ensuring that the area’s oil stays in the hands of what he calls “the revolution.” But now some of the eastern states may even be won by his challenger, Henrique Capriles. I wanted to know what is driving the change, and what the Chávez administration is doing to hang onto its support.
It’s just after midnight, and dozens of teens dressed in red have gathered in a plaza next to the beach. They’re waiting for rides to the capital, Caracas, where President Chávez will in a few hours close out his reelection campaign with a massive street rally. 19-year-old Miguel Angel Velasquez explains why he’s going.
ACT:MIGUEL (0:20, as he talks really, really fast)
Siete de Octubre le vamos a dar una gran victoria porque somos jovenes que antes habian olvidado, que quedaban en los barrios, que se veían como malandros, que no se veían bien para nadie. Ahora los jovenes están saliendo nuevas ideas, nuevas cosas, y innovando y haciendo parte de esta revolución siendo las principales protagonistas de esta revolución. (NOT TRANSLATING THIS, AS I AIN’T SURE WHAT HE’S SAYING, BUT IT WILL BE HARD TO CUT) Tengo una transcendencia, y tenga inovaciones nuevas para el país.
October 7, we’re going to win big. We’re the youth that had been forgotten, that lived in the ghettos, that were seen as criminals. Now the youth is coming out with new ideas, new things, innovating and taking part in this revolution, being the principal actors in this revolution. (TALK FAST TO END BEFORE THAT LAST SENTENCE)
Most of Venezuela’s oil and gas come from fields within 200 miles of here. The most important region is the Orinoco Belt, the world’s biggest deposit of liquid oil.
Ten years ago, anti-Chávez oil workers went on strike to take down the government. Jose Bodas was one of the workers who led the recovery of the oil industry in order to keep the government from falling. The state oil company became entirely pro-Chávez, and he won more than 60 percent of the vote in all of the eastern states in the last presidential election.
But since then, Bodas and others have seen President Chávez become less tolerant of independent thinkers. For example, the company is requiring workers to travel to Caracas to attend today’s Chávez rally.
AMBI-BODAS UP & UNDER
But the lack of respect for diversity may have backfired, Bodas says.
Hay una política del gobierno nacional muy anti obrero y anti sindical y sobre todo que criminaliza la protesta por problemas concretas como la energia eléctrica que falla mucho agua limpieza bienestar de la carretera y sobre todo la generacion de empleo estable.
The government has a very anti-worker and anti-union policy. It criminalizes protests for real problems like electricity supply, clean water, highway care, and above all the generation of stable jobs.
Today, Bodas is part of a small movement that is supporting a third-party candidate named Orlando Chirinos. They say Henrique Capriles, who is Chávez’s main challenger, is too pro-corporate. But they are disappointed in the president.
El problema es que los cambios — la confianza que depositó el pueblo de Venezuela el 6 de Diciembre de 1998, al votar por el presidente, después de 14 años, hubo un gran desfraude. Hubo desfraudó el presidente de la república, esa voluntad de cambio.
The problem is that the Venezuelan people placed their confidence on December 6 1998 by voting for the president. That confidence has, after 14 years, turned into a great disappointment. The president defrauded the people and its desire for change.
Raúl Párica, a leader in the pro-government oil union, says most people are still thrilled with the president. He says most oil workers in the region used to be outsourced contract labor, but now are on payroll with better benefits and job stability.
But pro-government voices can’t hide that supporters of challenger Capriles keep driving by in a sound truck.
AMBI-CAPRILES-SOUND-TRUCK, leave up a second, then back down and under to fade out.
Pro-Capriles mottos dot walls around the city, though many are blotted out with spray paint. Flor Pereira is supporting the Capriles campaign from her position as a campaigner for an opposition candidate for governor. She says the campaign doesn’t get worked up about the vandalism.
Eso forma parte de los habitos del digamos del adversario en este caso, una parte de oficialismo, pero nosotros lo desestimamos. Nosotros más bien promovemos acciones pacificas, apuntamos a la paz. Tenemos un mensaje bien conciliador. Pensamos en progreso. Hablamos del futuro, de oportunidades para todos. Rechazamos este tipo de sanciones, pero no les damos mayor importancia.
This forms part of the habits of, shall we say, the adversary in this case, a pro-government faction, but we discount it. We prefer to promote peaceful actions. We have a conciliatory message. We think about progress, talk about the future, about opportunities for all. We reject these types of sanctions, but we don’t give them too much attention.
Several recent polls show Chávez’s support stuck below 50 percent, while Capriles has gained adherents in recent weeks. Some voters — mostly disappointed former supporters of the president — still haven’t made up their minds. For them, as for the country, the election hinges on a single question: is it best to keep placing hope in President Chávez? Or is it time for the next new thing?
For Monocle, in Puerto La Cruz, this is Steven Bodzin.