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Venezuela's stark divisions on show at presidential vote

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A deeply divided Venezuela picks a new leader Sunday, with the rich calling for an end to the "Hugo Chavez nightmare," and the poor warning against the bourgeoisie returning to power.

Being poor is not a prerequisite for supporting the late Chavez's anointed heir, acting President Nicolas Maduro, and you do not have to be rich to support his rival Henrique Capriles.

But their presidential campaigns have laid bare the intensely sharp political divisions that marked Chavez's 14-year rule until his death from cancer last month.

"When I look at Venezuela, with all that oil, and see what is going on around me today, it makes me so terribly disappointed," said Alexis Chacon, 74, giving a state of the nation, poolside at the upscale Altamira Club in Caracas.

His friend realtor Gary Rottemberg, 69, added: "The biggest damage Chavez did was to achieve a total separation of the two sides," referring to Chavez' years of pitting wealthy against the poor.

The populist-socialist president doled out billions of dollars in jobs, education, housing and subsidized food.

Though Chavez built a rabidly supportive fan base and reduced poverty from about 50 percent to about 30 percent, the economy is still largely oil-based, food shortages are frequent and the country has one of the continent's worst crime rates.

"They just do not understand what work is," Rottemberg said, highlighting class divisions in a society in which handouts play key economic and political roles.

Not 10 kilometers (six miles) away, in the humble hillside slum of Petare and its thousands of tiny, precariously-perched, red-clay block homes, Lourdes Perez brandished her Hugo Chavez doll, decked out in tiny military fatigues.

"He took the blindfold off us all. The opposition people want to walk all over poor people and black people," argued Perez, 75, who is Afro-Venezuelan.

Standing amid stocks of bananas, eggs and rice, she proudly told AFP that she and her 11 children were "all Chavistas" and were voting for Maduro.

-- We live in a bubble --

Chacon and Rottemberg were joined by their friend Guadalupe Garcia. She inherited an engineering company from her late husband and has one son in New York and another in Los Angeles.

"There used to be respect here," Garcia recalled of the pre-Chavez era. "But since Chavez came to office (1999), our lives have been a lot worse for it. I have an apartment at the beach, and I cannot even go there because of crime. I cannot go downtown alone because of crime."

The friends say violence has made Caracas South America's most violent city, and that the economy is in a shambles. They put it all down to Hugo Chavez's choices, in their view, aimed at consolidating his political base at any cost.

"We live in a bubble: from home to the club, from the club to the office," said Chacon.

"The Hugo Chavez nightmare has sunk this country," added Chacon, who runs a chemical company.

-- Vote for the -stache --

The three are what ruling party politicians, including Maduro, openly and bitterly call "rickety bourgeoisie."

Maduro has called Capriles, the center-left Miranda state governor, a "decadent prince of the bourgeoisie," and a "rich kid" who will not prevail against a candidate who is "working class, and of the people."

Victorino Matheus, a 68-year-old bus driver who proudly shows off a campaign poster on which he painted a moustache -- symbol of the mustachioed Maduro.

"I am one-hundred percent casting my ballot for the 'stache," he joked.

"Maduro is the guy Chavez selected for us," he said, "and the guy we are going to follow."

Miriam Barreto, 46, seconded that emotion next to her altar to Chavez in Petare.

"If (Capriles) wins, the poor people are screwed," she said. "Venezuela will go back to capitalism, and the bourgeoisie only work for themselves."

-- Whose country is this? --

Chavez's supporters and even detractors acknowledge that the late president raised the visibility of the poor. His critics are quick to point out, however, that he created a political "system" that virtually excludes those who don't back the ruling party.

But on both sides, some appear oblivious to the opposing camp.

"I don't know where this guy (Chavez) got all these people, with so much rancor and hatred," said Garcia. "There is no discrimination here," she said of the club, which requires a high income and board reviews of memberships.

And in the slum, Barreto does not even notice those who may feel left out politically.

"Today, we are very united because there are more of us Chavez (party) supporters," she said. "The opposition people should just come over to our side."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130413/venezuelas-stark-divisions-show-at-presidential-vote