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Venezuela's Chavez celebrates 10 years in office
Mon Feb 2, 2009 2:07am EST
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By Saul Hudson
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez marked 10 years in office on Monday, declaring a national holiday to celebrate just hours before the anniversary in a sign of how personalized his grip on Venezuela has become.
Chavez, a former paratrooper who once sought power in a coup that failed, celebrated the milestone in the middle of a closely fought campaign for a February 15 referendum on allowing him to run for re-election.
The self-styled socialist revolutionary, who has said he wants to govern for decades, will also host a summit of Latin America leftists to burnish his credentials as a regional leader before the vote.
Countries with small economies, such as Bolivia, Cuba and Honduras, will attend ceremonies to fete Chavez. Large crowds dressed in signature red shirts are also likely, especially as public sector workers have the day off and can be bussed to events by Chavez's massive political machinery.
The normally bustling streets of Caracas will be quieter after businesses scrambled to tell their employees and schools their student to stay at home to comply with Chavez's Sunday decree.
Chavez has repeatedly won elections in his 10 years in office and has overcome a coup, a national strike and a recall referendum. He remains popular among the OPEC nation's majority poor for spending oil wealth on clinics and schools and typically draws cheers at rallies for his speeches condemning the "evil empire" of the United States.
"We have done in 10 years what couldn't be done in one century," Chavez wrote to his supporters on Sunday.
But the Caribbean country has also become polarized in the last decade, with many Venezuelans complaining Chavez has amassed so much power he is a dictator-in-the-making.
That sentiment has helped erode some of Chavez's attraction to voters. After an overwhelming re-election in 2006, he narrowly lost a referendum in 2007 on allowing his re-election. In November, lost some influential posts in regional elections to the opposition.
Pollsters say public opinion is divided over his attempt in this month's referendum to win the right to stay in power as long as he keeps winning elections.
Whether or not Chavez wins the vote, 2009 will be challenging.
Used to lavishing oil wealth from one of the world's largest exporters on his poor supporters, government income has fallen as world crude prices have crashed in recent months.
The state oil company -- the financial engine for Chavez's social programs -- has piled up debts with contractors in recent months, raising doubts about how long Chavez can sustain his food handouts and free doctor visits.
Chavez says his revolution will withstand the global economic crisis, which he blames on U.S. prescribed capitalism. Continued...
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