Venezuela's Chávez ahead in polls despite dwindling faith in revolution
Signs of corruption and mismanagement have damaged incumbent Chávez ahead of Sunday’s election, writes TOM HENNIGANin Caracas
FOR AMIRCA Silva, work is agreeably slow these days. Venezuela’s national pantheon has been closed for more than a year, leaving its doorman with little to do but sit in the shade of the portico and chat with the soldiers guarding the tomb of Simón Bolívar, the “Liberator” of six South American republics.
Hugo Chávez, the country’s president and Bolívar’s most devoted disciple, has ordered the construction of a soaring modernist extension to the modest 19th-century church. This new mausoleum, which resembles a billowing white sail, will rehouse the Liberator’s remains and is scheduled to open on December 17th in time for the 182nd anniversary of his death.
By then Silva is certain that the president will have been victorious in his fourth presidential election, to be held on Sunday, securing another six years for his leftist “Bolivarian Revolution”.
“The people will vote for one of their own,” he says confidently. Like a surprising number of Chavistas, or Chávez supporters, in Caracas, Silva says he has personally met the president and can vouch that he is “one of the people”.
“He came here and we talked. There was a lot of security with him but you can chat with him like anyone else, like I am talking to you now. He’s a very cool guy – simpatico.”
The soldiers nod in agreement.
Evidence for this Chávez charisma – his folksy charms, his pride in his humble background and a rare and devastatingly employed talent for communicating with supporters – is readily found in Caracas.
Canvassing for the president outside the city’s cathedral, the face of retired actor Pilar Coromoto lights up as she recounts her own encounter with “mi comandante”.
“Before him, our leaders bankrupted us while siphoning money offshore. But he is noble. He is sincere. He cares for the old and the young. He touches lepers. When I met him he was exactly like I imagined.
“Chávez is Chávez. I love him with all my heart,” she says emphatically, with a look defying anyone to mock her loyalty.
But Chávez’s lead in opinion polls going into Sunday’s vote is more than just a response to his charisma. He has used revenue from Venezuela’s oil exports and increasing amounts of debt borrowed against future sales to try to improve the lives of Venezuela’s poor.
New blocks of public housing are rising up in central Caracas while cable car lines are being installed to make the trip home easier for residents of the slums who climb up from the valley floor across which the capital sprawls. Notably absent from the urban landscape are the armies of homeless people and street children who are too often a feature of Latin American cities.
“THE CHÁVEZ government has had many successes,” says Maryclen Stelling, a sociologist sympathetic to the president. “Critical poverty is greatly reduced. Illiteracy has been reduced to zero. Health has improved. Many people have received a home. Most importantly, he has placed the issue of Venezuela’s huge social debt at the centre of the political discussion.”
The political impact of this focus on the poor can be felt in the queue outside a state-owned supermarket in one of the city’s poor barrios, or neighbourhoods.