Tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, on Monday as Hugo Chavez launched his campaign for another term as president of Venezuela.
There have been months of uncertainty over the state of his health, but Chavez says he has recovered from cancer and that, despite rumours circulating about his condition, he is ready to compete in the presidential elections being held on October 7.
"It [Chavez's speech] is almost messianic … he has a martyr complex. This is typical not only of Chavez but of populous regimes in Latin America. There's an excessive focus on the charismatic leadership and the personal crusade of the leader. There's been too much focus on Chavez."
- Nikolas Kozloff, a Latin America analyst
"They say Chavez is dying, he is in a wheelchair, he won't come here to present his candidacy, that they are looking for a successor," he said during a more than two hour long speech. "I say thank you God and my people. I am here in front of you, and in your name and [that] of my country, presenting my candidacy for presidency."
After more than a decade in power, Chavez still enjoys enormous popularity - particularly among the country's poor.
And opinion polls give him a comfortable lead over his rival, Henrique Capriles, who also drew crowds when he launched his campaign on Sunday.
"I don't want to be the president of a group or of a sector, but of all Venezuelans," Capriles declared. "I'm nobody's enemy. My enemies are Venezuela's problems. This is a country that has everything to move forward but a government that doesn't allow it to move forward."
Since Chavez became president in 1999 the poverty rate in the country has dropped dramatically, education levels have risen and healthcare for the poor has improved. But the country still faces enormous challenges.
"[Venezuelans] are entering into sort of a tunnel, into a political campaign no one knows how it's going to wind up on October 7. They don't know whether Chavez is still going to be the candidate, whether he will survive in terms of reaching the elections."
- Mark Schneider, the vice-president of the International Crisis Group
Critics say Venezuela is overly-dependent on its oil industry, which despite large oil and natural gas reserves, continues to suffer from chronic power shortages and blackouts. It also has a high crime rate, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
Capriles' campaign includes policies such as retaining control of the state oil company, preventing further nationalisation of the industry, increasing foreign investment, pushing education to reduce crime, continuing with existing social reforms, establishing ties with "democratic" nations, revising the deal offering Cuba discounts on oil supplies and adopting Brazil's economic model.
Opponents dismiss Chavez's social programmes - known as Bolivarian missions - as short-term solutions aimed at solidifying his popularity among his base. But supporters say the improvements in their lives are evidence of the success of his policies, and are a firm foundation for Venezuela's continued development.
Inside Story Americas asks: Has life improved for Venezuelans under Hugo Chavez?
Joining presenter Shihab Rattansi to discuss this are guests: Nikolas Kozloff, the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the United States; Gregory Wilpert, the editor of the Venezuela Analysis news site; and Mark Schneider, the vice-president of the International Crisis Group, a non-profit conflict resolution organisation.
"Given the kind of society that Venezuela is it's actually quite amazing what's been achieved so far just considering the fact that when Chavez was first elected you couldn't find a majority for socialism, whereas now you can."
Gregory Wilpert, the editor of venezuelaanalysis.com
VENEZUELA'S 'BOLIVARIAN MISSIONS':
- A variety of social reforms have been implemented under Hugo Chavez - most of them paid for by revenue from the country's nationalised oil industry - and have had a real impact on the lives of Venezuela's poor.
- The government has increased the amount of money spent on education, leading to a 50 per cent increase in the primary education enrollment rate.
- The government also introduced universal healthcare in 1999, increasing the number of doctors twelvefold while constructing several thousand additional health centres. Infant mortality has dropped and life expectancy has increased.
- There has been a 50 per cent drop in the poverty rate from 49 per cent in 1998 to 24 per cent in 2009. And there has been a 2/3 drop in extreme poverty rates, down from 21 per cent in 1998 to 7.2 per cent in 2009.
CHALLENGES FACING VENEZUELA:
- A major housing shortage, with at least two million more units needed to house the poor who currently live in slums
- Soaring crime rates, with murders tripling in the last 12 years, according to figures from the Pan American Health Organization
- Widespread power outages last year which led to the rationing of electricity