On Sunday, Hugo Chávez hopes to win a second term as president. But opinion is split among experts over his intentions, says Huw Richards.
Venezuela unquestionably comes into the category memorably defined by premier Neville Chamberlain when speaking of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 - that of the "far-off country of which we know little".
Julia Buxton of Bradford University's department of peace studies recalls her own reluctance to study the country when George Philip, her academic adviser at the London School of Economics, pressed it upon her. "I wanted to do Chile, which along with Mexico was very trendy at the time. Venezuela seemed dull, stable and a bit complicated. He said, 'Everyone's doing Chile - do Venezuela or don't bother to come here.'"
It was, she acknowledges, the best advice she has received in her academic life. What was dull and stable has taken on the role occupied by Chile in the Seventies - prime Latin American polariser of opinion, battleground of ideologies and proxy for views of US influence in the region. Buxton says:
"While there is little current British research on Venezuela, there is huge interest among students."
Venezuela's presidential election on Sunday, with charismatic, controversial ex-military leader Hugo Ch vez seeking a second six-year term, concludes 12 months of Latin American elections that have seen Evo Morales of Bolivia become the continent's first president of indigenous origin, Alan Garc!a (Peru) and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) return after decades in opposition, Brazil's Lula secure a second term and - in the one significant reverse for the Left - Felipe Calderón win a knife-edge election over Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. Ch vez is expected to win the single-round most-votes-takes-all poll, a result that will please the Bush Administration in Washington DC about as much as its own mid-term reverses.
Mike Cole, research professor in education and equality at Bishop Grosseteste College, says: "The election will be, in part, a referendum on Chávez's social reforms and redistribution of power."
The vehicle for reforms has been the misiónes initiatives, which pour money into projects aimed at Venezuela's poor. Along with projects for health and welfare has been Misi"n Sucre, a higher education programme whose most significant feature is the creation of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV).
Cole, who visited Venezuela last month, spent a week at UBV. He describes it as "a genuine widening-participation initiative". He adds: "So far as I can judge, standards are high."
Samuel Moncada, Higher Education Minister, is a former student of St Antony's College, Oxford. But despite this, Malcolm Deas, former director of Oxford's Latin American Centre, is unconvinced by the Chávez Government.
He resigned last month from the Association of University Teachers after more than 40 years, arguing that its support for Ch vez was "not something a serious academic union should be engaging in". He doubts the Venezuelan Government's commitment to academic freedom and argues that the UBV is "100 per cent Ch vista, with no independence or quality control".
Jason Garner, a historian who attended the International Forum on Philosophy in Caracas in July, says: "The project is ideological, and they don't attempt to deny it. It aims to address national, social, economic and political needs, bringing in people who were excluded."
Much depends on how one sees the existing university system. Cole, who is having a book published by UBV, argues: "Access for the poor majority has been extremely restricted, partly because of the financial costs of university study, but also because of a deeply entrenched system of corruption and patronage governing entry procedures."
But Deas says: "There has been great expansion in the past four decades, and there are no-fee universities in the state sector. Plus the University of Zulia, in [the oil-producing] Maracaibo province, has 65,000 to 70,000 students, which hardly suggests exclusivity."
From his own contacts in the state and private system, Deas speaks of "a general air of unease" about Ch vez's intentions. He says: "There are threats of audit and investigations and a great deal of Ch vezisation in the state sector."
But Cole says that "democratic and open discussion abounds". Debate among undergraduates compares favourably with that in British universities, he says.
Again, much depends on how one interprets Chávez's wider programme. Cole sees it as "a concerted effort to create socialism for the 21st century".
Buxton sees Chávez as a key transitional figure, breaking the entrenched power of the old party system and redistributing wealth and power. "There is no doubt they have reduced poverty and brought many more people into the education system. At the same time, about one third of the population does feel excluded."
Deas and Celia Szusterman, who lectures in Spanish and Latin American studies at Westminster University, perceive something less attractive.
Szusterman says: "I've no complaint about what he is trying to do for the poor, but he is bad for Venezuelan democracy - an old-style populist in the mould of some military leaders of the past. I'm not at all sure the large amounts of money going into his programmes are being well spent."
Buxton acknowledges that the misiónes are expensive, but points out that costs will not necessarily continue at current levels - much early expenditure is on infrastructure - and she believes that programmes will be sustainable unless oil prices drop below $25 to $30 a barrel.
One certainty is that Chávez will continue to inspire debate. So while Venezuela remains unavoidably distant, we will learn a little more of it in time.