CARACAS (Reuters) - Demoralized by their failure to unseat President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's opposition hopes to bounce back in December state elections that provide a chance to curb the socialist president's power.
The opposition holds seven of Venezuela's 23 states and is fighting to at least keep those by appealing to voters' worries over uncontrolled crime, cronyism and sputtering services.
But the government is counting on momentum from the October 7 presidential election victory - where Chavez's charisma and anti-poverty programs outweighed weariness with those day-to-day problems - to make gains at a regional level.
Chavez carried all but two of the states in his re-election triumph and is now sending out some political heavy hitters inside his party to try and wrest control of some opposition-held governorships.
"No one is giving up," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, mastermind of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition that this year managed to unite Venezuela's diverse opposition parties for the first time during Chavez's 14-year presidency.
"The reasons for this struggle remain exactly the same," added Aveledo, urging supporters to ensure a good turnout despite disappointment at opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' 11-point loss to Chavez in the election.
Chavez's new six-year term starts in January and will extend his rule to two decades, though there is speculation the cancer that floored him for a year from mid-2011 may recur.
Opposition leaders generally stay quiet on Chavez's health but view the December 16 state elections as a chance to at least limit his influence.
Despite being squeezed of funding by the central government, most of the seven opposition governors have won plaudits for relatively efficient administrations. Capriles governs Miranda state and used his successes there in health, education and food programs as a springboard for his presidential bid.
Now he is locked in the headline battle on December 16, when he will seek re-election in Miranda and faces Chavez's high-profile former vice-president, Elias Jaua.
Promising to deepen socialist reforms and improve efficiency in his new term, the 58-year-old Chavez handpicked Jaua and is providing ample campaign resources to try and sink his presidential rival's political future.
"He's not going to have the Miranda governorship as a consolation prize," declared Jaua, 42, a former stone-throwing student radical who is one of Chavez's most trusted allies.
Capriles, 40, insists he is back in fighting shape and is reminding voters that, even though he fell short, the opposition had its best showing against Chavez, with a record vote of 6.5 million or 44 percent of the total.
"Who didn't have a cry on that Sunday? I was very down," he said. "But now I'm back on my feet, and will do all in my power to ensure we win a majority of governorships."
CHAVEZ FACTOR DOMINATES AGAIN
A good showing for the opposition would improve its power base, enable a new generation of leaders to have crucial experience in office, and potentially give them leverage in braking Chavez's policies at local implementation level.
A poor performance might reopen some of the internal dissent and splits that have plagued them in the past.
Bolstered by his re-election and his successful cancer treatments, Chavez is likely to hit the campaign trail to help Jaua and other government candidates for the governorships.
With the opposition traditionally doing better in local rather than presidential polls - which are a vote on the still-popular Chavez - the president's personal presence in the campaign is vital for his candidates.
Chavez acknowledged cancer radiotherapy treatment earlier in the year had left him weakened for the presidential bid. Health issues may again limit his role in the regional campaigns.
"I was boxing with my left hand tied up, and one leg tied up," he said last weekend. "This might sound arrogant, but if I'd been in top condition, I'd have won by 20 points."
Opponents hope that now that Chavez's place in the presidential palace is secure again, the December elections may turn into a protest vote against Socialist Party governors from an electorate unhappy over many grassroots issues.
A lower turnout than the record 81 percent of voters in the presidential election may also hurt Chavez's allies.
"You cannot compare the two votes," said pollster Luis Vicente Leon, who accurately predicted the presidential race.
"Chavez is not the candidate in these elections, the strength of his regional candidates is not equivalent to him and in these elections you get 10-15 percent fewer voters, two million people, which could radically change the game."
Another high-profile opposition leader, Pablo Perez, who was runner-up to Capriles in the opposition's February presidential primary, will be fighting to keep his post as governor in the oil-rich western state of Zulia.
Henri Falcon, 51, a former military ally of Chavez who broke with him in 2010, is seeking re-election in Lara state.
Chavez has reshuffled his Cabinet to send some of his most trusted allies into the regions to battle for him.
As well as Jaua, the outgoing ministers of interior Tareck El Aissami, indigenous issues Nicia Maldonado, and the presidency office Erika Farias are all contesting governorships.
Chavez's brother Adan will seek re-election in the family's home state of Barinas, in Venezuela's agricultural heartland.
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Monday, October 8, 2012
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez put to rest any doubts about his masterful political touch in winning a third consecutive six-year term after a bitterly fought race against a youthful rival who has galvanized Venezuela's opposition.
The state governor who lost Sunday's presidential vote, Henrique Capriles, had accused the flamboyant incumbent of unfairly using Venezuela's oil wealth to finance his campaign as well as flaunting his near-total control of state institutions.
Still, he accepted defeat as Chavez swept to a 10-point victory margin, the smallest yet for him a presidential race. This time, the former army paratroop commander won 55 percent of the vote against 45 percent for Capriles with more than 90 percent of the vote counted.
Chavez will now have a freer hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, as he pledged during the campaign, and to continue populist programs. He's also likely to further limit dissent and deepen friendships with U.S. rivals.
Chavez spent heavily in the months before the vote, building public housing and bankrolling expanded social programs.
"I think he just cranked up the patronage machine and unleashed a spending orgy," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
But Shifter also noted the affinity and gratefulness Venezuela's poor feel for Chavez. "Despite his illness, I still think he retains a strong emotional connection with a lot of Venezuelans that I think were not prepared to vote against him."
"They still think that he's trying hard even if he's not delivering what he promised, that he still has their best interests at heart," Shifter said. "That's the political skill that he has. He hasn't lost that touch."
Chavez spoke little during the campaign about his fight with cancer, which since June 2011 has included surgery to remove tumors from his pelvic region as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has said his most recent tests showed no sign of illness.
Tensions were high Sunday night as announcement of the results were delayed.
Finally, fireworks exploded over downtown Caracas amid a cacophony of horn-honking by elated Chavez supporters waving flags and jumping for joy outside the presidential palace.
"I can't describe the relief and happiness I feel right now," said Edgar Gonzalez, a 38-year-old construction worker.
He ran through crowds of Chavez supporters packing the streets around the presidential palace wearing a Venezuelan flag as a cape and yelling: "Oh, no! Chavez won't go!"
"It's time now to sweep away the squalid ones," said another elated supporter, Ignacio Gonzalez, using a description of the opposition Chavez employed during campaigning.
"It's time to get them out of governor's and mayor's offices. The next battle is in December," when state and municipal elections will be held, added the 25-year-old student, who wore a red shirt that wedded the images of Chavez, Jesus Christ and South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Capriles posed the strongest challenge yet to Chavez, who won by a 27-point margin in 2006 and by 16 points when he was first elected in 1998.
"I will continue working to build one country," said the wiry, 40-year-old grandson of Holocaust survivors who unified and energized the opposition while barnstorming across the country.
He said in his concession speech that he rejects the idea of two Venezuelas divided by ideology and class.
Capriles had vowed to address violent crime that has spun out of control, streamline a patronage-bloated bureaucracy and end rampant corruption, but his promises proved inadequate against Chavez's charisma, well-oiled political machine and legacy of putting Venezuela's poor first with generous social welfare programs.
Yet with a turnout of 81 percent, Chavez only got 551,902 more votes this time around than he did six years ago, while the opposition boosted its tally by 2.09 million. Chavez appeared to acknowledge the opposition's growing clout.
"I extend from here my recognition of all who voted against us, recognition of their democratic weight," he told thousands of cheering supporters from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace.
A Capriles victory would have brought a radical foreign policy shift including a halt to preferential oil deals with allies such as Cuba, along with a loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment.
Washington, which has often feuded with Chavez, declined to congratulate the president directly, but acknowledged the result.
"We congratulate the Venezuelan people for the high turnout and generally peaceful manner in which this election was carried out," said State Department spokesman William Ostick.
"We believe that the views of the more than 6 million people who voted for the opposition should be taken into account going forward," he added.
President Raul Castro of Cuba, which could have been badly hurt by a Chavez loss, was among Latin American leaders sending warm congratulations to the former paratrooper on his victory after nearly 14 years in office.
Chavez paid close attention to his military-like get-out-the-vote organization at the grass roots, stressing its importance at campaign rallies. The opposition said he unfairly plowed millions in state funds into the effort.
One pro-Chavez voter, private bodyguard Carlos Julio Silva, said that whatever his faults, Chavez deserved to win for spreading the nation's oil wealth to the poor with free medical care, public housing and other government programs. The country has the world's largest proven oil reserves.
"There is corruption, there's plenty of bureaucracy, but the people have never had a leader who cared about this country," Silva said after voting for Chavez in the Caracas slum of Petare. His daughter received an apartment from the state while the free medical care he gets included a recent operation to remove tissue that was clouding his vision.
First-time voter Brenda Aguirre, who is about to embark on cost-free legal studies at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, was also willing to forgive "el comandante" for his shortcomings.
"Chavez isn't to blame for the people who surround him," she said.
Across town, where people from Aguirre's neighborhood wait tables and sweep floors, Capriles told supporters not to feel defeated.
"We have planted many seeds across Venezuela and I know that these seeds are going to produce many trees," he told them at his campaign headquarters.
At many polling places, voters began lining up hours before polls opened at dawn, some snaking for blocks in the baking Caribbean sun. Some shaded themselves with umbrellas. Vendors grilled meat and some people drank beer.
Chavez's critics accused the president of inflaming divisions by labeling his opponents "fascists," "Yankees" and "neo-Nazis," and it's likely hard for many of his opponents to stomach another six years of the loquacious and conflictive leader.
Some said before the vote that they'd consider leaving the country if Chavez won.
Gino Caso, an auto mechanic, said Chavez is power-hungry and out of touch with problems such as crime. He said his son had been robbed, as had neighboring shops.
"I don't know what planet he lives on," Caso said, gesturing with hands blackened with grease. "He wants to be like Fidel Castro - end up with everything, take control of the country."
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Bogata, 01 October, 2012 - The armed guerrillas of the FARC in Columbia today confirmed from Cuba that peace talks with the Columbian government will begin on the 15th of October in Oslo, and not on the 8th as they had reported earlier.
Rodrigo Granda, a member the rebel negotiating team, read from Havana on the Columbian Blu Radio station a communique that he claimed would be signed between FARC and the Columbian government.
"The National Government and the FARC People's Army inform public opinion, both national and international, a meeting of the technical teams of both parties have agreed to begin a conversation on 15 October of this year and to make a public announcement on the 17th of October in the city of Oslo," said Granda.
The guerrilla made reference to a compromise signed on the 26th of last August in La Habana which gave place to the named general Accord for ending the conflict and the construction of a stable and long lasting peace, which would open the table to dialogue in Oslo and later relocate the negotiations to Cuba.
The guerrilla had previously informed, also from the Cuban capital, that the Oslo site would be met on the 8th of October, but last weekend some Columbian mediators moved the date back to the 14th.
A little before, other FARC negotiators, "Marco Leon Calarca", who's real name is Luis Alberto Alban, indicated in the magazine "Efe" that "in the first 15th of this month" would begin the formal dialogue.
He also said that tentatively they would inform the exact date of the beginning of negotiations.
The Columbian government and the FARC began in this manner its third attempt at a peace process in the almost 50 years of armed conflict. with Cuba and Norway as guarantors and Chile and Venezuela in the capacity of "seconds".
FARC and the Columbian government announced an accord at the end of August after six months of secret exploratory talks conducted in La Habana.
Monday, October 1, 2012
from the AP
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Supporters of Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles had just set out in a caravan of cars for an afternoon of campaigning when they came to a road blocked by a crowd of President Hugo Chavez's loyalists.
Witnesses said some people in the caravan had gotten out to try to convince the Chavez supporters to let them through when gunfire rang out. Two Capriles supporters died in the violence on Saturday in the western state of Barinas and a third was seriously wounded.
There have been other spasms of violence in the heated campaign ahead of Venezuela's Oct. 7 election, but this was the first fatal incident, and it sharply ratcheted up tensions.
Capriles condemned the violence on Sunday, saying at a campaign rally: "The time of hatred is going to be buried in Venezuela." Chavez also called for calm, saying: "It's not with violence that we're going to face each other. It's vote against vote."
Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said on Sunday in a message on Twitter that one suspect was arrested in the killings, though he didn't identify the suspect or say how he was captured.
Opposition politician Pedro Castillo, who was in the caravan and witnessed the violence, said there was no physical confrontation before the shooting erupted. He said the caravan was stopped in a long line of cars when some of the Capriles supporters got out, and that more than two dozen Chavez supporters had laid tires in the road to block traffic.
A video posted online showed the two groups arguing.
One opposition supporter, 32-year-old Jason Valero, was among those standing in the street and tried to walk through the barricade, Castillo said. Then, he was shot in the chest, Castillo said.
"There wasn't even a shove," Castillo said. "The matter went from something verbal to taking out a gun and despicably killing a person, and then to starting with a barrage of gunshots."
The video posted on YouTube showed people scattering as the shots rang out.
An older opposition supporter, Omar Fernandez, had been blowing on a horn of the sort used in political rallies, Castillo said. Fernandez was wounded in the neck and died at a hospital, he said.
Fernandez had been an agricultural secretary for the opposition party Un Nuevo Tiempo in the town of Barinitas, said opposition politician Rafael Riera, who also witnessed the shooting.
Valero was a father of four who worked in a family cargo truck business, Castillo said.
A third man, local campaign photographer Hector Rojas, was seriously wounded in the shooting, while Castillo said a teenage girl suffered a less serious wound and was released from a hospital.
Riera said the people in the caravan had simply wanted to make a swing through the area and had tried to tell the Chavez supporters "we didn't want any sort of problems."
Riera said that people had seen a truck nearby and "from there some individuals got out and fired some shots."
Both opposition politicians said that after the shooting one suspect was stopped by people before he could get away, and was then detained by authorities. They also said a truck was burned after the shooting.
"What we want is what their relatives are demanding... that justice be done and that this act not go unpunished," said Castillo, who attended wakes for the victims.
In another previous outburst of campaign-related violence, at least 14 people were injured on Sept. 12 when stone throwing broke out after Chavez backers blocked a road trying to prevent Capriles from reaching an event in Puerto Cabello.
In March, shots erupted while Capriles was visiting a Caracas district that traditionally has been pro-Chavez, and one opposition supporter was wounded.