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Chávez reelection at risk as Venezuela's oil heartland moves on

In Venezuela's oil-rich east, some say the administration's management of natural resources – including oil spills and refinery accidents – has pushed them toward the opposition.

By Steven BodzinCorrespondent / October 6, 2012

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, greets supporters under a heavy rain during his closing campaign rally on Avenida Bolivar, in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Oct. 4. Chávez is running for re-election against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in presidential elections on Oct. 7.

Pedro Portal/The Miami Herald/AP

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Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela

Here in the oil-rich eastern region of Venezuela, propaganda for President Hugo Chávez dominates the landscape, from spotless billboards by the airport to dusty banners over trash-strewn lots. A hillside water tank carries the name of Chávez’s PSUV party.

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Though President Chávez has spent years focusing on the region’s strategic importance, cultivating support for his party and its policies of “21st century socialism,” his campaign has hit resistance here. And it has become one of the places where opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski stands to pick up votes when the country goes to the polls on Sunday.

Over the course of his nearly 14 years as President, Chávez has made it clear he wants supporters of his socialist revolution to control access to the region’s quarter trillion barrels of oil reserves. But with a record of oil spills, a rising accident rate in refineries, and social problems like the continent's highest murder rates and weekly blackouts, Chávez’s time in office may be working against him, weighing on his public support here, and across much of the country.

"It's very tight, and both have very similar chances of winning," says Iñaki Sagarzazu, a Venezuelan teaching at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. "It will come down to who mobilizes the most."

Mr. Sagarzazu says that Chávez support has moved from urban to rural areas over the years. That’s left the president with a base in the plains while urban areas have moved largely to the opposition, which this year is supporting Mr. Capriles, governor of a state that includes part of the capital, Caracas.

Here in this region, too, people have shifted their support away from the incumbent.

"He never does what he says," says Reina, a mother of 11 and full-time homemaker, who was shy about talking to the press. She says she has supported Chávez for years, but is still undecided as to whether she will give him her vote again in a race that’s too close to call, with pollsters and analysts divided on which candidate is the most likely winner.

Environmental and labor woes

Venezuela is experiencing 18 percent inflation and there is a sense that neighbors, such as Brazil, have emerged more successfully from poverty. Such concerns are countering Chávez's emotional connection with the people and his ability to attract support with populist programs such as free homes. In the oil region, environmental issues have also affected the president's standing. One case is Monagas state, where the president received 71 percent support in the 2006 election.

A pipeline burst in the state Feb. 4, spilling thousands of barrels of crude into the Guarapiche river. Local opposition press reported that for the first hours of the disaster, the state oil company failed to halt the flow, in part because some employees were away in the capital for a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of Chávez leading a failed military coup.

The spill forced managers to halt water withdrawals from the river, leaving about 200,000 residents of the city of Maturin with limited running water for six weeks.

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