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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.

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The state's governor, Jose Gregorio Briceño, criticized the central government's response, and was ejected from the PSUV in retribution. He now supports Chávez's opponent, Capriles, and his change of sides may improve the Capriles mobilization, allowing the opposition to pick up votes.

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The labor movement in the oil and basic industries sectors has also become less reliably pro-Chávez. The workers were solidly in the president's camp six years ago, when Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez told workers that the state oil company was "deep red," referring to Chávez's team color. But many of them have also grown disillusioned with promises of a workers' paradise accompanied by no-bid contracts for newly rich suppliers, while health and safety standards decline.

Is fourteen years 'enough?

Even the most dedicated supporters say the big extractive industries need fundamental change.

Raúl Párica is a leader in the pro-Chávez oil workers union. He rattled off a list of complaints about the state oil company, PDVSA, including inefficiency, bureaucracy, and corruption. He still says he'll vote for Chávez, but that crime is an epidemic. The PSUV party is infested with opportunists with no social conscience, he says. What is needed is deeper, cultural change — a "cultural revolution." Fourteen years isn't enough time to change a culture that developed over a century, Párica says.

And Chávez's diminished support here won't all translate into more votes for challenger Capriles. Jose Bodas, a plant operator and union leader with the state oil company, moved away from the president in 2007, and today he is supporting Orland Chirinos, a little-known third-party candidate, saying that Capriles is fundamentally a representative of the business class, and won't support workers.

Shifting politics at the state oil company violates one of Chávez's primary goals, which is to keep the country's oil out of the hands of the US and the local opposition, whom he calls "lackeys." But there is no sign of another round of political purges at the company, which went on strike against the president's policies ten years ago, driving up oil prices worldwide.

Not all want ‘change’

One irony of the race is that the self-proclaimed revolutionary is now a conservative choice, attracting support from people who have gained under his administration and now fear losing their piece of the pie — be it a lucrative contract, a basic job, or something as small as a handouts of inexpensive meat and milk. Chávez won in 1998 as the candidate of hope and change, but he is now an institution.

Adriana Marin says she has friends who will vote for the president because their parents are doing much better under Chávez than they had under prior administrations. She says she'll support Capriles because she says Venezuela is becoming less free compared to other countries in the region.

Ms. Marin isn't alone. Capriles has hooked many supporters with his message of change. When he closed out his campaign in the region Tuesday, tens of thousands of supporters turned out. He told them he would halt the politicization of state enterprises and the current policy of pressuring workers to contribute one day of salary per month to the governing political party.

Chávez, who is recovering from cancer, didn't show up to his own campaign-closing ceremony here, instead saving energy for a rally yesterday in Caracas that was likely the biggest of the campaign. There, he responded to those who say he hasn't fulfilled long-standing promises, telling the crowd he’ll be more "efficient."

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