Hometown of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

The hometown of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez gets a lot of government attention, and pork barrel projects.

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Head for the northern coast of South America.

Venezuela's on our radar. Its neighbors include Guyana, Brazil and Colombia. The country's 1700 mile long coastline looks out on the tropical waters of the Caribbean and the big blue Atlantic.

There are 28 million plus Venezuelans spread out throughout its 23 states. Try to spot the Venezuelan state of Barinas on the map.

Now — can you name the city in the state of Barinas that's the hometown of Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez?

So where does Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez call home?

His hometown and the answer to our Geo Quiz is Sabaneta, Venezuela.

As you might expect, the president's hometown gets a lot of government attention, and pork barrel projects. But some residents complain of crime, corruption and press censorship. Hugo Chavez's recent medical problems have some locals wondering about the fate of the town if the president is sidelined. One scenario is that without Chavez, Sabaneta would likely revert to its former status as a forgotten farm town.

Hugo Chavez, the son of school teachers, is Venezuela's first president from a poor background. Chavez hails from the small town of Sabaneta, a once-forgotten farm town. The town lies in the sparsely populated western state of Barinas. Farmers here grow tobacco and sugar cane, raise cattle, and listen to folk songs called "musica llanera" or prairie music.

Sabaneta emerged from oblivion when Chavez was elected president in 1998 and pledged to lead a socialist revolution on behalf of the poor.

But he's not the only family member watching over the region.

One of his brothers, Aníbal, is Sabaneta's mayor. A second brother, Adán, was elected governor of Barinas in 2008. Adán succeeded their father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, who was governor for eight years.

The Chavez connection shows. On a Sabaneta street corner, workers build a school for disabled children. Nearby, the government is putting up an oil refinery and a sugar mill. The town now gets plenty of government attention, and pork barrel projects.

The slum where the president grew up now features neat rows of concrete houses, paved streets and playgrounds. One of Chavez's childhood friends, Alfredo Aldana, tells me that Sabaneta even has a youth orchestra.

"I had never in my life heard the flute played live," Aldana said. "Well, they gave my granddaughter a flute and now she plays one."

But some local residents say there's a dark side to Chavez family rule.

Among the most critical are relatives of kidnapping victims, who've descended on the government's human rights office in the state capital to demand action.

Barinas state has one of the highest per capita rates of homicide and kidnapping on Venezuela. Migdalia Soler's brother was abducted two years ago and is still missing.

"This is the president's home," Soler said. "Chavez was born and raised here, but it seems like the people of Barinas don't matter to him."

Government officials refused requests for comment. But journalists have linked many abductions to a local construction workers union, which is a big donor to the ruling Socialist Party. But instead of investigating the union, authorities have often targeted the media, including a radio talk show host Jose Luis Machin, who's been called in for questioning after revealing close ties between local officials and union members accused of kidnapping.

In the past four years, local TV and radio station owners have cancelled programs that criticize the government. They fear losing government ads, their main source of income. The Press and Society Institute, a media watchdog group in Caracas, says there have been more government crackdowns on journalists in Barinas than almost any other area of Venezuela.

The Chavez family has ruled here for so long that it's simply grown intolerant of criticism, according to Enrique Ochoa, an opposition politician in Barinas.

"They have all the power. They do what they want with Venezuela," Ochoa said. "It's his country. It's a land of Chavez."

But it's unclear how long this will remain the land of Chavez. The president is sick with cancer in the pelvic region and his prognosis is uncertain. During an Easter Mass in Barinas, a teary Chavez pleaded to Jesus Christ to save his life.

"Give me your cross, 100 crosses and I will carry them," Chavez said. "But give me life, because I still have so much to do for my people and my homeland. Don't take me away yet."

If Chavez is unable to run for another six-year term in the October, some analysts believe his brother, Adán, will be the ruling party candidate. But Adán lacks Hugo's charisma and would face a tough fight against opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

In Chavez's old neighborhood, fans of the president, like ambulance driver Jose Alvarez, say Hugo Chavez is irreplaceable.

"Before Chavez we were like prisoners," Alvarez said. "We were treated like animals, but not anymore because the comandante opened our eyes."

  • Venezuelan_states-e1338908184465.jpg

    This map shows Venezuela's 23 states plus a region of Guyana that Venezuela claims (Photo: Wiki)

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    Oscar Pineda, director of human rights group in Barinas, at his office where photos of people who have been kidnapped and disappeared line the walls. (Photo: John Otis)

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    A school girl in Sabaneta stares at a mural of the Venezuelan flag. (Photo: John Otis)

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    Jose Luis Machin, a Barinas reporter, stands outside the police office. He was called in for questioning after reporting on links between a corrupt union and government officials. (Photo: John Otis)

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    A mural on independence hero Simon Bolivar on the wall of a public school. (Photo: John Otis)

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