The United States had better get used to its Latin American nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. If, as expected, he wins reelection to a new six-year term today, he says he will seek a change in the constitution that would enable him to serve indefinitely.
As many as 14 million Venezuelans will go to the polls to choose between Chavez and Manuel Rosales, the scrappy governor of Zulia state. Rosales started his campaign late, but has fared better than many expected in re-energizing a badly fragmented, dispirited opposition. Still, surveys show Chavez ahead by margins ranging from 4 to 22 percentage points.
Rosales' only hope of victory lies in capturing large numbers of undecided voters.
Many U.S. citizens know Chavez for his diatribes against President Bush. But the key to his support lies in the redistribution of Venezuela's immense oil windfall. He now is spending a third of Venezuela's annual $130 billion in economic output on social outreach, public works and food and housing subsidies, and he is expected to reap the electoral dividends.
Chavez says he has added 4 million people to the payrolls since he took office, the vast majority through social outreach programs called "missions," worker-owned cooperatives and public works programs.
Those government-supported jobs could vanish with a decline in the price of oil, critics say, adding that private investment, industrial output and the creation of skilled jobs all have declined under Chavez's socialist policies.
"What we are seeing is state-led growth, very vulnerable in the medium and long term to a downturn in oil prices," said Michael Penfold, a political scientist at a graduate studies college here known by its Spanish initials IESA. "We are far more dependent on oil than 12 to 15 years ago, and that's what worries me."
But for now, the good times are rolling.
Whiskey and new car sales are at record highs, and polls show most Venezuelans generally feeling optimistic and happy with Chavez's stewardship, according to Datanalysis, a polling firm in Caracas, the capital. Fueled by public spending, the Venezuelan economy has grown at an annual rate of 10% for the last three years, said economist Francisco Vivancos of the University of Central Venezuela.
The country has emerged from an economic crisis after a strike by oil workers starting in late 2002 nearly brought crude exports to a halt. The strike followed the unsuccessful effort to oust Chavez in April 2002.
Despite the political problems between the two countries, Venezuela is the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the U.S.
If Chavez has a weakness among his supporters, it's widespread dissatisfaction with his foreign policy, which has included giveaways of oil to Cuba and other Caribbean nations; discounted heating oil to poor people in the United States; medical subsidies in Mexico and Central America; bond purchases in Argentina; and foreign aid to Bolivia.
Rosales, 53, has argued in his campaign that charity should begin and end at home.
A career politician, Rosales has said he would give poor Venezuelans a cash withdrawal card to directly access the nation's oil wealth. He would also expand the "missions," making them available to everyone.
Chavez's anti-U.S. rhetoric also rubs some of his supporters the wrong way, given familial and cultural ties to the United States.
At a Thursday news conference, Chavez unapologetically repeated his description of Bush made before the U.N. General Assembly in September. "Someone has to call the devil the devil," Chavez said with a shrug.
He said Thursday that if he wins today, he will call an assembly to make revisions to the constitution that would allow him to serve an unlimited number of terms. Without that change, Chavez would have to leave office at the end of a new term.
Although more than four-fifths of Venezuelans polled by Datanalysis last month said they were better off under Chavez's leadership, almost as many said the president should do more to fight crime, now among the worst in the hemisphere.
Retired policeman Hector Ortega of Caracas' poor Vargas section is among those who seem ready to look past any misgivings about Chavez because of his commitment to alleviating Venezuela's inequalities. "He speaks our language," Ortega said.
Chavez came to power with high expectations as a reformer in 1999, preceded by a two-decade period in which Venezuela's economy was second-to-last in Latin America, said Francisco Monaldi, also an IESA professor.
The president's popularity started to increase after the missions were launched in 2003 with the Mission Barrio Adentro, which offers free medical help in poor neighborhoods.
Critics accuse Chavez of packing the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Commission with supporters. But the opposition has sometimes made it easy. Opposition candidates boycotted congressional elections last year in a dispute over the vote-counting machines.
Chavez is getting credit for making today's election more transparent than those in the past, agreeing to the auditing of half the ballot boxes and allowing more than 1,000 foreign and national electoral observers.
The biggest fear, expressed by both Chavez and opposition leaders, is that the vote will be so close that neither side will accept defeat, which could lead to turmoil similar to what occurred in Mexico after this summer's disputed election.