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Poor's Hopes Take Root Under Chavez

But critics say recent reforms are merely the Venezuelan president's hedge against a recall effort.

September 17, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — You can see two worlds from this shambles of misery that creeps up the mountain.

The first is the neighborhood itself. Crude cinder-block houses lurch up the slope. The streets are tight -- some no wider than the span of a man's arms. Contaminated water courses down homemade canals. It's loud, dirty and cramped here.

The second lies in the valley below. Skyscrapers owned by multinationals soar in neat bundles. The colonial-era Congress building gleams white. The broad avenues of the rich in the east chug with traffic -- symbols of power and wealth throbbing in the distance.

The first world belongs to Maria Lopez. The second, to her dreams.

"I'm planning to make a lot of money and leave here," Lopez, 48, said one recent afternoon as she sat on a worn couch in her cramped living room. "I have hope."

Lopez's plans to escape poverty are not as farfetched as they once were. While the economy is still suffering badly, President Hugo Chavez's promised revolution to improve the lives of Venezuela's millions of poor is finally beginning to take off.

In the past few months, more than half a million illiterate Venezuelans have received basic reading and writing instruction. Hundreds of thousands of poor children have begun attending school for the first time in their lives. Doctors imported from Cuba as part of a petroleum deal are paying house calls to poor neighborhoods.

Perhaps most important, tens of thousands of people like Lopez have been given title to land that their families have been squatting on for generations, both in poor urban slums like this one and in vast rural tracts. Using new government credits, poor families are planting crops, organizing businesses, fixing up their homes and redesigning their neighborhoods.

"There is an incredible flowering of activity in the communities that are participating," said Gregory Wilpert, an American sociologist and freelance journalist living in Venezuela who is studying the effect of Chavez's reforms. The impact of the government's efforts is still haphazard and limited. But the measures have had a ripple effect that has left many of the poor feeling that for the first time in their lives the government is actually interested in aiding them.

This helps to explain a Venezuelan political phenomenon -- Chavez's unwavering support in polls from about 35% of voters, most of them poor.

By nearly any measurable standard, the poor are worse off today than they were when Chavez first took office five years ago. There are fewer jobs and higher prices. Nor is it hard to find poor people who dismiss the idea that Chavez has improved their lives in any way, pointing to tougher times since he took office.

But in neighborhoods like this one, Chavez commands unswerving loyalty. Women sleep with Chavez posters over their beds. Men vow to defend him to the death, tucking pistols into the belts of dirty jeans. In many poor homes, his portrait hangs alongside that of Jesus Christ.

It is not that Chavez, a strident leftist who has promised a war on poverty, has solved all their problems. But he is the only one who has promised to.

"I have lived through lots of different governments," Lopez said, looking at the living room she owns after three decades of squatting. "This is the first time in my life that the government has done something for me."

Chavez's Rise

Venezuela in the 1970s and 1980s was in many ways the crown jewel of Latin America. Booming oil prices created a vibrant and stable middle class and wealth that trickled down even to the poorest barrios.

But a drop in oil prices and a banking crisis in the 1990s spelled the end of the good times and the demise of the country's two main political parties, which had long shared power.

Chavez, a military officer whose rise to power began with an attempted coup in 1992, swept into the political vacuum in 1998 and trounced opponents backed by the main parties.

One of the main planks of his platform was the promise of a "Bolivarian revolution." The plan, named after South American liberator Simon Bolivar, called for an all-out attack on the poverty that engulfed 80% of Venezuelans.

Instead of battling poverty, however, Chavez spent the next several years fighting a list of political opponents that seemed to grow longer by the day. First businesses turned against him, then unions, then the media. Former allies also abandoned him. Even Communists joined the opposition, claiming Chavez wasn't leftist enough.

The different groups banded together to form a movement that, though disorganized, soon proved itself determined to get rid of Chavez.

The trigger was a series of decrees that Chavez enacted without consulting Congress. Among them was a land reform that allowed the government to seize unproductive cropland and turn it over to poor farmers. The decrees, as well as Chavez's go-for-the-jugular rhetoric and erratic behavior, led to civil unrest.

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