In Chavez's Venezuela fiefdom, a fight for political survival

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  • Hugo Chávez
    Hugo Chávez
    President of Venezuela (1999-2013)
  • Nicolás Maduro
    Nicolás Maduro
    53rd President of Venezuela
  • Freddy Superlano
    Venezuelan politician
  • Jorge Arreaza
    Venezuelan politician

Venezuela's governing party is leaving nothing to chance in its bid to reclaim a fiefdom of ex-president Hugo Chavez which shocked the establishment by seemingly siding with the opposition in a recent election.

The western state of Barinas, controlled by the Chavez family for over two decades, voted in large numbers in November 21 regional elections for an outsider -- opposition figure Freddy Superlano.

The vote count was stopped by a court as Superlano claimed what would have been the first defeat in Barinas since 1998 for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), now run by President Nicolas Maduro.

Superlano is an ally of opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized by the United States and dozens of other governments as Venezuela's true president over Maduro, whose 2018 reelection was not seen as legitimate by part of the international community.

As the opposition participated in regional and local elections for the first time since 2017, Superlano took the lead over incumbent Barinas governor Argenis Chavez -- the deceased ex-president's older brother, who subsequently resigned his post.

But the opposition triumph was not to last.

The ballot count was suspended in the region of 870,000 voters and Venezuela's Supreme Court -- accused of pro-government bias by the opposition and observers -- annulled the preliminary result a week later.

It granted a request by the country's public finances watchdog to declare Superlano "ineligible" due to "administrative and criminal investigations" into accusations of corruption, and ordered new elections to be held.

- 'A warning' -

Superlano's Popular Will party replaced him with Sergio Garrido, an unknown regional lawmaker, who faces off Sunday against the PSUV's Jorge Arreaza -- a former foreign minister and father to Chavez's oldest grandson.

Arreaza has been campaigning fervently, taking no chances.

The November defeat was "a warning," said Reinaldo Chavez, a lawmaker in the local council in the town of Sabaneta and a relative of the ex-president.

"Perhaps we were beaten by our own triumphalism," he told AFP.

Maduro's party won 19 gubernatorial races in the November 21 vote.

Barinas was alone among Venezuela's 23 states not to have the outcome confirmed by election authorities.

EU observers said the vote countrywide was marred by irregularities, including the widespread use of state resources by the PSUV, and "arbitrary disqualifications" of challengers.

- 'The people are sick' -

In Sabaneta, a town of 28,000, stands a six-meter (6.5-yard) bronze-and-granite statue of Chavez, its most famous son, who died of cancer in 2013.

Murals everywhere honor the man beloved by many for redistributing Venezuela's vast oil wealth to the poor, but also blamed for the country's now miserable economy and sky-high crime rate.

There are no opinion polls to test the voters' pulse ahead of Sunday's re-run.

"We have no electricity," a woman shouted from her home as Arreaza campaigned Wednesday in an open-roof car emblazoned with the slogan: "Hope returns."

Edixon Nieto, a 22-year-old farmer, said he had voted for Superlano.

"Here in Sabaneta, I won't lie, people are sick," he told AFP, citing problems with basic services such as water and electricity.

Impoverished Venezuela is battered by recession and hyperinflation, and three in four of its citizens live in extreme poverty, according to a recent study.

Millions have left the country in recent years to try their luck elsewhere.

But Arreaza still hopes to profit from what remains of Chavez's popularity.

"Arreaza is the father of a beloved symbol of our commander Chavez: the beloved grandson of our commander," Maduro said when announcing Arreaza's gubernatorial run.

The boy, Jorge Arreaza Chavez -- nicknamed "El Gallito" (Little Rooster) accompanied his father on his campaign to Sabaneta, riding in the 4X4 with him through the streets as Arreaza waved in a red shirt with a white star on the left sleeve, like Chavez used to wear.

Chavez's father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, was governor of Barinas from 1998 to 2008.

He was followed by Hugo Chavez's brother Adan -- a former Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba -- and then older brother Argenis from 2017.

Another brother, Anibal Jose, was mayor of Sabaneta.

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