INTERNATIONAL

Chavez future hangs on poll

CARACAS, AUG. 14. Dressed in a pink lurex trouser suit and munching on a bar of chocolate shared with her sister and a friend, Cristina Mas did not fit the typical image of a political activist.

But the shopkeeper from the La Candelaria neighbourhood of Caracas has been on every march against the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, since protests began four years ago.

Final protest

``This is a dream for me,'' she shouted, trying to make herself heard over the noise of hundreds of thousands of marchers walking through the centre of the city. Ms. Mas was taking part in the final protest to mobilise voters for tomorrow's referendum that will decide whether the charismatic Mr. Chavez continues his six-year reign as President of the oil-rich country.

The vote will, in part, be a verdict on his attempts to tackle poverty. Recent polls have shown Mr. Chavez to hold an advantage of 10-25 per cent over the Opposition, a disparate coalition of some 14 groups and parties. But judging by the mood on Thursday's march, few people place any faith in the polls.

Despite the political tension evident across the capital, the atmosphere was more carnival than protest. Sound systems blared from the back of lorries, stilt-walkers tottered through the crowds, fireworks were launched and drummers shimmied their way through the demonstrators.

Vital function

Ms. Mas had not considered herself a political person before she became involved in the protests. ``I hated politics,'' she said, ``I considered myself a very materialistic person. But we've sacrificed things here that people were used to. And for what result? He's done nothing for social welfare, nothing to improve the economy. This now has become like my personal struggle.'' But she conceded that Mr. Chavez had performed one vital function for his country.

``He's achieved something that nobody has ever managed to do — he's politicised people. So when we get rid of Chavez we won't return to the bad ways of the past. In the future, with the next President, if he doesn't act correctly, we'll throw him out as well,'' she said.

Around her, five marches converged on the city, bringing to a head a campaign that has gained more signatures on a petition to recall the president than were cast in his favour when he was elected in 1998.

Under attack

But the campaign has come under attack. Critics point to the money allegedly supplied by George Bush's administration to kick-start the Opposition, the stagnant neo-liberalism of the campaign's economic policies and the preponderance of the country's discredited former political elite among its highest ranks.

The pro-Chavez `no' campaign has adopted red as its colour, the `yes' campaign, yellow, blue and red. Irving Bandes was sporting his yellow ``Primero Justicia'' T-shirt with pride.

Like Ms. Mas, he has not missed a demonstration against Mr. Chavez, travelling from his home state of Miranda, half-an-hour from the capital.

Back at the Miraflores Palace, the man who engineered the country's new constitution was assuring the press of his forthcoming victory and of his intention to stand for re-election in the unlikely event that he should lose.

``Given the advantage we have (in the polls) over the Opposition, it is totally impossible that we will lose on Sunday,'' he said. But, he added: ``If I come to lose the referendum, that very same day I will hand over the presidency to the Vice-President. And perhaps I'll go and rest for a few days and to reflect before steeling myself to be a candidate again.''

Mr. Chavez spoke of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Abraham Lincoln, Aristotle, Noam Chomsky (who, Mr. Chavez reminded his listeners, had referred to Aristotle as a ``dangerous radical'' and the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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