By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez launched on Monday a program to provide $100 a month to poor Venezuelan children in the latest of a plethora of social "missions" that have underpinned his popularity.
Chavez, who seeks re-election in 2012, says such measures show the tangible benefit of socialist rule in the South American OPEC member nation. But critics argue it is a pre-election ploy masking broader economic failure.
"Thank God, the Bolivarian Revolution arrived in time and is stopping poverty and misery," Chavez said at a meeting with low-income pregnant women to announce the initiative. He styles his government after independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Under the Great Sons of Venezuela Mission, low-income households will be able to claim 430 bolivars ($100) per month from the government for each child up to a maximum of three. Disabled dependents will qualify for 600 bolivars.
Chavez supporters say the latest social project -- adding to a dozen such missions covering everything from healthcare to low-cost housing -- prove how Venezuela's oil wealth is being properly distributed for the benefit of the poor.
They contrast that with the reduction of social benefits amid economic hard times in Europe and the United States.
Although wary of criticizing a benefit for children being announced just before Christmas, opponents say the latest project is a typical populist tactic to maximize votes for Chavez in next October's presidential election.
They argue the giveaway is just a plaster on the ailing economy and the poor would benefit more from better employment prospects, lower inflation, less corruption and more efficient use of Venezuela's unprecedented oil revenues.
"EACH CHILD LIKE JESUS"
Some say the measure will encourage teenage pregnancies.
"What madness," Chavez said of the criticism. "The problem is not the child but the phenomenon of poverty and misery.
"Those children who are coming, they are a blessing. Each one of you is like the Virgin Mary and each child is like a Jesus who is reborn. Mary was very poor and Joseph did not have a minimum salary," he quipped, referring to another much-vaunted pillar of the government's social policies.
Chavez faces a strong challenge from a newly united opposition coalition but remains Venezuela's most popular politician with an approval rating above 50 percent.
His "missions" have guaranteed him strong support in Venezuela's urban slums and poor rural areas. They have also exacted a heavy toll on the finances of state oil company PDVSA, which is short of funds for investment.
Government officials sometimes stoke fear among the population by saying opponents would reverse Chavez's flagship social policies like free clinics staffed by Cuban medics in the Mision Barrio Adentro (Inside the Slum Mission).
Yet the leading opposition candidate, center-left state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, has praised the best of Chavez's social policies and said he would be "mad" to overturn them.
Poverty levels have fallen among Venezuela's 29 million people during Chavez's 13-year-rule, according to U.N. figures, but there is debate over the data and to what extent the government has been responsible for the improvement.
"Given the oil bonanza Venezuela is in, the results should have been much, much better," Radonski said recently.
Venezuela's oil barrel has averaged more than $100 this year, allowing the government to splash money liberally on social projects and build up a pre-election war-chest.
At Monday's event in a Caracas maternity hospital, women peppered Chavez with requests for housing and improvements to refugee shelters, in a sign both of Venezuela's deep social needs and his highly personalized style of government. (Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Editing by Marianna Parraga and Bill Trott)