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Venezuela on edge as election arrives

On the eve of a presidential election expected to be close, Venezuelans are stocking up on household staples, anxious that chaos might ensue if President Hugo Chavez loses.

October 07, 2012|By Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon, Los Angeles Times
  • Shoppers stock up on supermarket items in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, the day before the presidential election.
Shoppers stock up on supermarket items in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, the… (William Urdaneta, For The…)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Jesus Ramirez is taking no chances. He and his wife bought several pounds of fish and beef at the Mercal state-run grocery store in Caracas' Trinidad barrio the day before Sunday's presidential voting, just in case postelection chaos descends on the country.

"The supermarkets are cleaned out of candles, batteries, bottled water, even prepaid telephone cards," said Ramirez, a real estate broker who lives in the blue-collar Catia barrio. "We're all stockpiling things in case they become scarce."

The hoarding of foodstuffs and other necessities seen in some cities in recent days is a symptom of the tension prevailing before the long-awaited electoral contest between President Hugo Chavez, 58, seeking a fourth term, and challenger Henrique Capriles, 40, a former Miranda state governor.

At the crowded Plan Suarez discount supermarket, homemaker Maria Graciela Fernandez was on the same mission. She was filling her shopping cart with staples like toilet paper, cereal and canned soup.

"I'm not here for one thing in particular. I'm buying everything as a precaution. I think it's a good idea, just in case," Fernandez said.

Asked to explain the frenzied buying, Plan Suarez employee Kevin Nunez, who was stocking shelves nearby, said, "They're afraid the world will come to an end."

Similar surges in grocery buying were reported in eastern Venezuela, in the industrial city of Puerto Ordaz.

"It's been very atypical the last three days, the high volume of purchases," Kherson Cardenas, manager of the Santo Tome supermarket, said in a telephone interview. "People have been snapping up the basics — salt, flour, margarine and rice — probably because of nervousness."

Nearly 19 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote at 40,000 polling places. Analysts expect a turnout of 75% or more, as well as a close result.

Much of the anxiety of people like Ramirez can be traced to the warnings by Chavez at recent campaign appearances that a civil war could be sparked if he fails to win reelection, a hint that he and his followers might not cede power and violence could ensue.

Even Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has said a Chavez victory is the best way to ensure regional stability.

"Chavez has been using very aggressive language, and that's scared people," said Ramirez, who described himself as a former Chavez supporter who now backs Capriles. "I'm tired of living in insecurity, scarcities and constant power blackouts."

Even if Capriles wins the vote and Chavez and his followers peacefully accept defeat, Capriles will face what some analysts have described as a "governability" problem in managing a country where Chavez's PSUV party controls Congress, the judiciary and the electoral commission.

Most polls give Chavez the edge. But the huge bloc of undecided voters could sway the vote. The national electoral commission will release results only when an "irreversible" winner is evident, a count that could last into late Sunday.

"In all the polls I've seen that show one candidate or another leading, the bloc of undecided voters is much larger than the margin, and no one knows how they are going to vote," said Luis Lander, political science professor at Central University of Venezuela. "The closer the election gets, the tighter I think it's going to be. It's too close to call."

Capriles has run as a problem solver, promising to improve Venezuelans' standard of living and end $7 billion in annual foreign giveaways, mainly free oil to Cuba.

Chavez in recent months has solidified his support base with massive giveaway programs, including one that aims to build 200,000 housing units for Venezuela's poor. Another, called Mi Casa Bien Equipada, or My Well-Equipped House, has donated Chinese-made household appliances to tens of thousands of poor families.

Chavez has described the programs as redistributing the nation's vast oil wealth; critics say they're a naked bid to buy votes.

In any case, the giveaways have raised Chavez's favorability ratings with voters, said a political analyst who commented on condition he not be identified.

"Since late last year, Chavez has been spending money like there's no tomorrow, and it's worked. Most polls show his approval ratings are up 10 points since then," the analyst said.

But Chavez has paid a steep price. According to one economist, the government will run a $60-billion deficit this year, which equates to nearly 20% of Venezuela's economic output.

Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents. Special correspondent William Urdaneta in Puerto Ordaz contributed to this report.

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