Chavez Says 'battle Has Begun' For 2012 Election

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrated his 12th anniversary in power Wednesday saying he is ready to battle for six more years in next year's election.

In televised appearances that lasted much of the day, Chavez touted his government's programs and also apologized for his errors, saying much remains to be done as he seeks to lead Venezuela toward socialism.

"The battle has begun, and it's going to be hard and good," Chavez said of the 2012 presidential election as he visited a state-run supermarket.

The president is facing a gamut of problems, ranging from rampant violent crime to 27 percent inflation. His popularity has been hovering around 50 percent in recent surveys, down from more than 70 percent in 2006, pollster and economist Luis Vicente Leon said Wednesday.

The opposition has yet to select a presidential candidate.

Chavez has been able to maintain the support of about half the population because he's a "very charismatic leader who has understood the DNA of the poorest Venezuelans, and in some way has spoken to them in their language," Leon said. "He doesn't solve their problems, but he speaks to them, he includes them."

Chavez handed out computers to children at a Caracas school and said the country is much better off today than it was when he took office in 1999. Later, he visited the state-run supermarket, part of a network that has grown as the government has taken over private markets.

"I ask forgiveness for my faults, for my errors, but I think ... we have been assuming a responsibility that aims to be always at the height of that hope," Chavez said. "How much Venezuela has changed for the better."

The country's opposition coalition condemned Chavez's handling of the economy and crime, saying in a statement that the government has failed to reduce violence.

"In our country, they keep killing thousands of Venezuelans, more than 130,000 people in the last 10 years," the opposition coalition said in a statement Tuesday.

The government has not released complete annual murder figures in recent years. Chavez has said his government is making strides against crime after he created a new national police force, and he pledged to work so that "all Venezuelans can walk down the streets without fear."

Among other problems, Chavez confronts an economy that has shrunk for the past six quarters and public frustration with faulty government services.

The Venezuelan human rights group Provea said the number of street protests in the country has grown from 459 in 2006 to 1,053 last year.
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