SABANETA – To understand why President Hugo Chavez may win yet another election in Venezuela next month, go and sit under the mango trees of Los Rastrojos or Sabaneta.
There, in the rural villages of his childhood at the heart of Venezuela’s great savannah or “llanos,” family and friends pour out tales of a boy whose motor-mouth and popular touch – now mainstays of his rule – were evident early on.
Guillermo Frias recalls with glee how he and cousin “Huguito” (“little Hugo”) played baseball in the dirt street using their arms for bats, and molding rubber from trees into homemade balls. “He always talked the most,” Frias laughs.
An aunt, Brigida Frias, recalls Chavez’s boyhood love of kites and drawing, and shows where the idealistic young adult used to lay in a hammock during earnest conversations.
It is in those placid, sun-baked plains where Chavez the man, and Chavez the myth, both began – and went on to polarise Venezuela like never before.
It is that image, the country boy who became president and then spent years trying to help the underprivileged, which Chavez wants uppermost in the minds of voters on October 7.
His foes’ ability to puncture that image, tap into disappointment with Chavez among the poor, and present their counter-image of a man whose socialist experiment has collapsed into shoddy autocracy, will determine their success.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ tactic of targeting Chavez’s heartlands for campaigning has given him a fighting chance: most of the traditional polls put Chavez ahead, but they also show Capriles creeping up, and one has him neck and neck.
The romantic, affectionate view of Chavez in Sabaneta is echoed to varying degrees in city slums and poor rural areas across the country where the president is most popular.
It is also matched by the equally deep-felt hatred toward him in other parts of the nation he has ruled since 1999.
For those tales, go to the golf clubs and other bastions of high society where his name is a dirty word and talk revolves around who else plans to emigrate if Chavez beats Capriles to secure a new six-year term.
For a view based less on class identity, step into the half-built Caracas shopping centre where hundreds of refugees from 2010 floods are still waiting, ever more desperate, for the government to deliver on a promise of new homes. (Reuters)