SABANETA, Venezuela (Reuters) - To understand why President Hugo Chavez may win yet another election in Venezuela next month, go and sit under the mango trees of Los Rastrojos or Sabaneta.
There, in the rural villages of his childhood at the heart of Venezuela’s great savannah or “llanos,” family and friends pour out tales of a boy whose motor-mouth and popular touch - now mainstays of his rule - were evident early on.
Guillermo Frias recalls with glee how he and cousin “Huguito” (“little Hugo”) played baseball in the dirt street using their arms for bats, and molding rubber from trees into homemade balls. “He always talked the most,” Frias laughs.
An aunt, Brigida Frias, recalls Chavez’s boyhood love of kites and drawing, and shows where the idealistic young adult used to lay in a hammock during earnest conversations.
It is in those placid, sun-baked plains where Chavez the man, and Chavez the myth, both began - and went on to polarize Venezuela like never before.
It is that image, the country boy who became president and then spent years trying to help the underprivileged, which Chavez wants uppermost in the minds of voters on October 7.
His foes’ ability to puncture that image, tap into disappointment with Chavez among the poor, and present their counter-image of a man whose socialist experiment has collapsed into shoddy autocracy, will determine their success.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ tactic of targeting Chavez’s heartlands for campaigning has given him a fighting chance: most of the traditional polls put Chavez ahead, but they also show Capriles creeping up, and one has him neck and neck.
The romantic, affectionate view of Chavez in Sabaneta is echoed to varying degrees in city slums and poor rural areas across the country where the president is most popular.
It is also matched by the equally deep-felt hatred toward him in other parts of the nation he has ruled since 1999.
For those tales, go to the golf clubs and other bastions of high society where his name is a dirty word and talk revolves around who else plans to emigrate if Chavez beats Capriles to secure a new six-year term.
For a view based less on class identity, step into the half-built Caracas shopping center where hundreds of refugees from 2010 floods are still waiting, ever more desperate, for the government to deliver on a promise of new homes.
“Promises, promises, is all we hear,” says Julietta Rodriguez, 37, in another temporary refugee shelter on the coast where she and four children have waited two years for new homes.
“I always voted for Chavez, I loved him, now I don’t know. Capriles looks competent and young. Maybe he deserves a chance.”
The election will be decided on how far such disenchantment, and the accumulation of day-to-day problems such as power cuts and crime, outweigh Chavez fans’ still deep affection for the man and their reliance on his hugely popular welfare programs.
Politically astute despite his often cartoon image abroad, Chavez constantly reminds Venezuelans of his roots in the sleepy farming heartlands that form the national identity and culture.
The 58-year-old leader speaks in the jokey, anecdote-laden style of the “llaneros.” He sings their songs and plays their musical instruments.
He tells stories of ancestors who fought among dashing horseback fighters at the vanguard of Venezuela’s independence army and later guerrilla movements.
In a nation whose most famous novel, “Dona Barbara,” is a story of magic realism in the cattle-ranching plains, Chavez also recounts fantastical tales such as that of a supposedly giant, deer-eating snake that nearly crushed him as a baby in his crib.
Even foes recognize his charisma and connection with the poor. They are also quick to point out the bullying side of his character - the man who vows to “pulverize” foes and harangues businessmen with takeover threats on live TV.
That, they say, is the true Chavez.
“What you have in Venezuela is gross and systematic violation of human rights,” opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said.
‘ONE OF US’
All around Venezuela, helped by generous use of state resources, enormous socialist-red banners proclaim: “You are Chavez!” - a reverse-play on the president’s straight-to-the-heart stump speech line that “I am the people.”
“We love him because he is one of us,” says Maria Quevedo, a 33-year-old mother who works as a volunteer in the spartan home in Sabaneta where Chavez spent his boyhood years. It is now the local headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party.
One of six siblings, Chavez used to tramp Sabaneta hawking “arana” (spider) sweets, made by his grandmother from papaya strips coated in sugar. “I would go round shouting, ‘Hot spiders, tasty spiders for pretty girls!” the garrulous Chavez recalled this month, telling the story for the hundredth or so time.
A new school, named “Mama Rosa” in honor of his beloved grandmother, is going up on the site of her former mud-floor shack where Chavez was born on July 28, 1954.
There is talk in the area that the president will inaugurate the school a few days before the vote: a symbolic return to his roots and yet another nudge to Venezuela’s 19 million voters about which candidate they should look to for their basic needs
“His heart has always gone out to the poor. All of us have come up in life thanks to him, otherwise we’d be nowhere,” adds Quevedo, casting an admiring eye over the school building site in what is now a bustling town surrounded by ranches and fields.
Elsewhere in Venezuela, though, that rose-tinted view of the president is under threat like never before.
For all his big gestures, showmanship and professions of “love,” many Venezuelans are asking why they suffer some of the highest crime rates in the world, electricity cuts shameful for such a big energy producer, and an economic malaise that has hundreds of thousands sitting idle.
Chavez’s socialism is, opponents say, a bitter joke, an empty concept that masks cronyism, mismanagement, grandstanding, autocratic leadership and the squandering of the biggest oil-revenue boom in the OPEC member’s history.
Just look at the ballooning wealth of Chavez’s closest allies, Capriles is wont to say. “If they’re socialists, then I‘m a Marxist-Leninist!” the state governor quipped last week.
A string of bad news in the past couple of months - from a jail riot and a refinery explosion that killed nearly 70 people between them, to a bridge collapse that caused traffic chaos in eastern Venezuela and the rare heckling of Chavez by disgruntled steel workers - has helped illustrate the opposition’s argument.
Chavez has become more authoritarian over time. At one recent rally, when he unilaterally named a candidate for the Carabobo state governorship, some in the crowd called for a different local official to be nominated instead.
“I have said Ameliach!” Chavez answered them angrily, making clear who his preferred candidate was - end of discussion.
Despite that, Chavez has kept his popularity high by continuing to pump billions of dollars into house-building and other new social “missions” - from pensions for the elderly to stipends for low-income single mothers - that drive home the message that he remains the nation’s father and “patron” (boss).
In interviews, many traditional “Chavistas” acknowledge the president has disappointed them, yet they are still reluctant to abandon him and turn to the opposition.
Painted by the president’s fans as a rich kid in cahoots with a U.S.-backed elite of right-wing Venezuelans, Capriles does indeed come from a wealthy family and has the light-skinned features characteristic of the old ruling class.
Although rooted in the earthy poverty and simplicity of Sabaneta, the Chavez story grew quickly from there. He joined the army and spent years quietly plotting before a failed coup in 1992 against then-President Carlos Andres Perez.
On his way into jail, wearing a red military beret that was to become his insignia, Chavez gave a two-minute televised speech admitting that his revolution had failed “for now.” The speech electrified the nation and launched his political career.
Granted amnesty in 1994, Chavez began criss-crossing the country sharing his vision and eventually shocking the political elite by sweeping to victory at the ballot box in 1998.
With private media and business leaders opposed to his rule, Chavez was briefly toppled by army dissidents and street protests in 2002 - but returned two days later thanks to military loyalists and popular counter-demonstrations.
He also survived an economically crippling oil strike.
Those are the best-known events of Chavez’s life, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of the countless controversies he has fanned and fought throughout a rule that has seen him replace Fidel Castro as Latin America’s leading firebrand.
In Sabaneta and Los Rastrojos, they know every detail of Chavez’s life and recount them with pride. There was not a single pro-Capriles banner on a recent visit.
“He doesn’t have the same charisma or way of talking. He doesn’t have a chance,” says Frias, Chavez’s 69-year-old aunt.
Down the road inside Chavez’s old school - where he first arrived in a pair of ragged rope sandals - a group of Socialist Party youth members push that message in an exuberant meeting that basically involves singing and chanting against Capriles.
In their midst, a toddler is given the microphone and taught to shout, “Down with the loser!”
Surprisingly, after dominating headlines and Venezuelan politics for a year, Chavez’s health has all but disappeared as a campaign issue in the final run-up to the vote.
Having declared himself completely cured of cancer in early July, after three operations and lengthy rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Chavez now barely mentions the subject.
He has had to limit his physical activities on the campaign trail to a few big appearances onstage or waving from buses - frustrating for a man who was arguably one of Latin America’s most charismatic and energetic street campaigners.
Should he win on October 7, the question of a possible recurrence of cancer will hang over him. Near one of the homes where he grew up, a shadow falls over friends’ and relatives’ faces when asked about the president’s health.
“He does look better to me, but you never know,” says farmer Cecilio Perez, 56, wandering past the plot that belonged to Chavez’s parents in the one-street village of Los Rastrojos.
“No one is removing him, though. He’ll only leave the presidency when he dies. Four hundred years might pass, but there will still be revolution here. If the gringos couldn’t get rid of Fidel (Castro), how are they going to stop Chavez?”
Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray