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.

One elderly lady says she owes a debt of gratitude to Chávez for creating the MerCal chain of shops where the government sells food staples at a steep discount to private supermarkets.

“He was the first to care about us. Before, politicians made promises at election time, but never did anything for us. But Chávez carried out his promises. And why? Because he is one of us,” says Ana Ruiz.

When asked about reports of supplies in state stores running short or being of poor quality, a group of women scoff.

“They sell things so cheap here at times it is like looting. People call their family and friends and everyone descends on the store together. But the opposition media reports this as shortages,” says cleaning lady Paola Melendez, who proudly says she does not know anyone in her neighbourhood who will not vote for the president.

Despite such displays of chavista fervour, for the first time since the president came to power the opposition has a realistic chance of beating him at the ballot box. Opinion polls show Henrique Capriles, a young opposition governor, trailing the president by less than the number of undecideds.

CHÁVEZ HAS long known that a third of the electorate, concentrated in the middle class, is deeply opposed to him. They are the “oligarchs” and “bourgeoisie” to whom he wants to deliver a “knockout” blow on Sunday.

But more worrying for the president are signs of stagnation among his own support in the barrios amid multiplying signs of mismanagement and corruption within his revolution.

There are reports that the hugely popular – and for Chávez electorally successful – Barrio Adentro programme that saw the creation of thousands of free public clinics in poor neighbourhoods is in trouble.

The government did not respond to a request from The Irish Times to speak to officials in charge of the programme, but impromptu visits to two clinics in Caracas yielded mixed results.

One was busy and seemed fully staffed with a team of Cuban doctors who declined to talk about their work. But another clinic was closed, with locals saying that its opening times had become erratic.

“Barrio Adentro had a positive impact when it first opened,” says Yeromina Desir, who sells home-made crafts outside the metro station of Petare, one of Caracas’s largest shanty towns. “But in reality things are not much better here than before.” Married with three children, she says she still struggles to get by and now has to worry about spiralling violence, which sees dozens of people killed in the city every weekend, mainly in poor neighbourhoods like her own.

Though adamant she will not vote for the president, Desir says his opponent has still not convinced her, either. “Capriles could just be a return to the old oligarchy.”

Such reticence in what surveys indicate is up to a third of the population should be enough to see Chávez win another six years in office on Sunday.

But for the comandante there are worrying signs that faith in his revolution is waning just as he looks for voters’ approval to make it “irreversible”.

Tomorrow: The struggle for 21st century socialism