- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

1:19 p.m.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Flush with oil profits, President Hugo Chavez handed public workers $3 billion in Christmas bonuses 1 1/2 months early, angering opposition leaders, who called it part of a cynical pattern of public handouts ahead of a December presidential election.

Opponents said the government spending spree includes free commuter train rides, a free rock concert and a powerful propaganda machine that has painted pro-Chavez slogans on buses and handed out T-shirts bearing the image of the former paratroop commander, known as “El Comandante.”

Mr. Chavez did not attend yesterday’s ceremony at which the bonuses were announced. However, during the inauguration of a medical clinic broadcast on state television, he wished Venezuelans happy holidays, saying everyone would soon be singing local carols called gaitas and eating hallacas, corn-flour tamales wrapped in plantain leaves and shared among family and friends throughout December.

“The beginning of the holiday season: November and December. Today the gaitas begin to ring out and we can eat one or two hallacas,” Mr. Chavez said.

Mr. Chavez has predicted a landslide victory in the Dec. 3 elections, vowing to win the support of more than 10 million of Venezuela’s 16 million registered voters.

A close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castros, Mr. Chavez has vowed to continue governing the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter until 2021 or longer. He has asked the National Assembly, packed with his political allies, to consider changing Venezuela’s constitution next year to allow indefinite re-election instead of the currently allowed two consecutive presidential terms.

Supporters of Manuel Rosales, Mr. Chavez’s main challenger, accused the president of trying to boost his re-election bid with the bonus, equivalent to three months salary for each of Venezuela’s roughly 1 million government employees. The bonuses usually are paid in mid-December.

“He’s trying to move Christmas forward, speeding up the economic growth that occurs at that time of year, so the people forget a little bit about what we have been proposing,” said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, Mr. Rosales’ campaign organizer.

“We are seeing a very pronounced tendency by the president to use of all the state’s resources at his disposal,” he said. “It’s just unfair.”

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel rejected the opposition’s charges, saying Mr. Chavez chose not to preside over yesterday’s bonus ceremony because doing so could influence the campaign.

“This bonus is not a manner of buying a vote as it’s been said within the evil-intentioned circles of the political adversaries,” Mr. Rangel said. “It’s an act of love.”

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