- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela — Flush with oil profits, President Hugo Chavez handed public workers $3 billion in Christmas bonuses 11/2 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 Wed- nesday’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 Castro’s, 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.

“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.

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