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Originally published Sunday, December 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Chávez has big edge in today's vote

The United States had better get used to its Latin American nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. If, as expected, he wins re-election...

Los Angeles Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — The United States had better get used to its Latin American nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. If, as expected, he wins re-election 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 go to the polls today to choose between Chávez 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 Chávez 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 Chávez through 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 one-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.

Chávez claims to have 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 new, skilled jobs have declined under Chávez'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 Venezuelan political scientist. "We are far more dependent on oil than 12, 15 years ago, and that's what worries me."

Whiskey and new car sales are at record levels and polls show most Venezuelans generally feeling optimistic and happy with Chávez's stewardship, according to the Datanalysis company. Fueled by public spending, the Venezuelan economy has grown at an annual rate of 10 percent for the past three years, said economist Francisco Vivancos of the University of Central Venezuela.

Venezuela has emerged from an economic crisis after a strike of oil workers starting in late 2002 nearly brought crude exports to a halt. The strike followed the unsuccessful effort to oust Chávez in April 2002.

Despite the political problems between the two countries, Venezuela is the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the United States.

If Chávez 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 Americans; medical subsidies in Mexico and Central America; bond purchases in Argentina and foreign aid to Bolivia.

Rosales has argued in his campaign that charity should begin and end at home.

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A career politician, Rosales, 53, has said he would give poor Venezuelans a cash withdrawal card called "Mi Negra" to access the nation's oil wealth directly. He also would expand the missions, making them available to everyone.

Chávez's anti-U.S. rhetoric also rubs some supporters the wrong way, given familial and cultural ties to the United States.

Chávez said Thursday that if he wins today, he will call an assembly to revise the constitution and allow him to serve an unlimited number of terms. Without that change, Chávez would have to leave office at the end of his new term.

Chávez is getting credit for making today's election more transparent than those in the past, agreeing to the auditing of half of all ballot boxes and to the presence of more than 1,000 foreign and national observers.

The biggest fear, expressed by Chávez and opposition leaders, is that the vote is so close that neither side accepts defeat, which could lead to turmoil similar to what occurred in Mexico after this year's disputed election.

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