Barinas state is Chavez country. President Hugo Chavez was born here, his father has governed it for 10 years, and now his brother is seeking the governor's job.
But as Gov. Hugo de los Reyes Chavez steps down, accusations of inefficiency, corruption and cronyism on his watch have confronted the president's older brother, Adan, with a tight race to keep the governorship in the family.
That makes the vote in Barinas one of the most-watched among the 22 gubernatorial races in Venezuela's state and municipal elections next Sunday.
President Chavez's foes would love to defeat his brother and compound the humiliation of last year, when voters rejected Chavez's attempt to further strengthen his already firm grip on power by abolishing term limits.
Barinas is used to lopsided Chavez victories, and Chavez Sr., a 75-year-old former schoolteacher known to all as "El Maestro," has won his three terms easily.
Too close to predict
His son still enjoys key advantages over opponent Julio Cesar Reyes: the ruling socialist party's campaign machinery, and the string of promises his president-brother made at a rally last month: a new oil refinery for Barinas, an international airport, a fertilizer plant, a prefabricated housing plant, a train and new commune-style towns.
Still, the election is too close to predict, says pollster Luis Vicente Leon.
Adan Chavez moved from a Cabinet post in Caracas to run for governor, and Hugo Chavez has campaigned vigorously for his big brother.
"Adan, I love you so much, man," Chavez exclaimed as they stood arm-in-arm before thousands of supporters during the televised rally in a stadium. "I know the battle's going to be hard. May God be with you."
Opposition candidates across the country are hoping to make gains by claiming corruption flourishes at all levels of the Chavez's leftist government. Nowhere do the accusations carry more sting than in Barinas, where Adan, 55, faces defecting voters who say his father's rule has been a disappointment for this rural state of cattle ranches and palm-dotted plains.
Opponents say the family has grown rich and acquired ranch lands, while the governor has repeatedly used emergency decrees for public works projects, allowing the government to sidestep open bidding rules and to handpick contractors.
"It's a corrupt dynasty," said Rafael Simon Jimenez, an opposition gubernatorial candidate who has known the Chavez family since his school days.
Family denies wrongdoing
The president's family denies wrongdoing. Venezuelan prosecutors, whom some accuse of being partial to Chavez, say they've found no evidence of graft. Neither Adan nor the governor responded to The Associated Press' requests for interviews.
Supporters note that the governor has completed public housing projects, installed power lines and paved roads.
But there are complaints even from some of the president's supporters. They point to roads and school construction that have languished unfinished for years.
Rosalva Hernandez, a maid and self-described "Chavista," is voting for Reyes, the current mayor of Barinas, the state capital. He's a former Chavez ally whose independent candidacy has led the Chavez family to label him "Judas" and "traitor."
"I don't like how El Maestro has governed," Hernandez said, pointing to a road whose pavement gives way to muddy gravel 50 yards from her door.
The president's five brothers have done well. The youngest, Adelis, is a vice president of Banco Sofitasa, which does business with the state. Argenis has held the important post of secretary of state in Barinas under his father. Anibal is mayor of the president's hometown of Sabaneta, and up for re-election Sunday.
Two brothers are close
Adan, a year older than Hugo, is the eldest, and has been the president's aide, education minister and ambassador to Cuba. A bespectacled former physics professor, he has his brother's beefy build and features but lacks his charisma and fiery speaking manner.
The two were raised largely by their grandmother in a dirt-floored home with a roof of palm fronds, and share a closeness that is a selling point for Adan in the campaign.
In 1998, their father became governor and Hugo Chavez was elected president.
Some opponents accuse the Chavez family of using the state as its personal hacienda. Lawmaker Wilmer Azuaje has taken his accusations before congress, saying brothers Argenis and Narciso Chavez profited from family power and acquired 17 ranches through go-betweens who allegedly put properties in their names. Again, the authorities say they have found no evidence of wrongdoing.
A particularly contentious issue is emergency decrees. The governor's opponents say he has declared them for all manner of non-emergency objectives, and that they have been used to flout public bidding and favor particular contractors.
The state's planning secretary, Aristides Gil, says they were used sparingly and all were legal. But official audit reports from as early as 2001 warn of "indiscriminate use of emergency decrees" under the governor.
The AP reviewed decrees in Barinas from 2004 to 2006 and found 18 citing an "emergencia."
On March 9, 2005, the governor declared an emergency in "all of Barinas state's road system"; in November 2005, an emergency to accelerate statewide school construction; two months later, an emergency need to prepare for sports events, refurbishing the stadium that hosted the 2007 Copa America football championship, and Adan Chavez's election rally.
Some defenders have argued that to achieve Chavez's ambitious, oil-financed goal of putting Venezuela through a rapid social revolution, government by decree is sometimes justified.
But skirting public bidding to benefit cronies is a long-standing problem in Venezuela. In Yaracuy state, former Chavez ally Gov. Carlos Gimenez was recently forced to step down and is being prosecuted on suspicion of bypassing bidding to favor one contractor.
The stadium say, critics say, was far too expensive at some $93 million and has dragged on. Work on two of its four lighting towers is still uncompleted.
As for the road-paving blitz, farmer Jose Zapata says one stretch in his area of southern Barinas is "pure potholes."
In the town of Sabana de los Negros, parents whose children's classroom is in a converted pool hall have been promised a high school will finally be finished in December after years of stop-and-start construction.
Yraima Rangel, whose 14-year-old son is one of those waiting for a proper classroom, strongly supports the president but feels politicians in Barinas only notice the voters' problems at election time.
"When the campaign is over and they settle in, what happens no longer interests them," she said.