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Support for Chavez Unwavering in Slums of Venezuelan Capital

August 16, 2004|Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — The rich hate him, saying he has stirred up class warfare. The privately owned media, closely aligned with his political opponents, pillory him daily as an enemy of democracy. And the Bush administration, which supported those who briefly overthrew him in 2002, describes him as a dangerous leftist.

But in the shantytowns here in the capital, President Hugo Chavez is revered as a national savior.

"Our hope is with Chavez," said Carlos Contreras, who urged residents to support the president in Sunday's recall vote. "All of our other presidents promised to help the poor, but he's the first one who has kept his word."

Chavez's support is concentrated among the poor, who make up a majority of this country's 25 million people. The soaring price of oil, a major export, has flooded the national treasury, allowing the government to spend heavily on social programs and fund what Chavez calls a "Revolution for the Poor."

Like many in the winding, hillside shantytown of brick-and-tin shacks in Catia district, Contreras has no steady work. He owns a truck and occasionally is hired as a mover or for other odd jobs.

Even so, he said life had improved dramatically since Chavez was elected in 1998. From a spot that offers a sweeping view of the neighborhood, Contreras pointed to a new health clinic staffed by Cuban doctors. The government has also opened several nearby markets that sell subsidized food to the poor.

There are new literacy programs, and Contreras, who is 47 and hadn't studied beyond third grade, now attends a school built by the government. He hopes to earn a high school degree.

If the opposition has support here, it does not readily show its face other than a handful of "Yes" signs scattered about the neighborhood. The walls of the shantytown and windows in homes are covered with red signs urging a "No" vote in the recall referendum.

"This whole street is Chavista," Contreras said as he led a tour through the neighborhood. "Maybe one in a hundred is for the opposition."

Nationwide, voters are divided over the recall, but in poor neighborhoods like this one, the president appears to have overwhelming support.

The opposition and the Bush administration have attacked Chavez for his close friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but that relationship doesn't bother poor Venezuelans who receive free treatment at government health clinics from Cuban doctors. Before, the poor had, at best, little access to healthcare.

"Chavez has love for the people," Contreras said. "He was poor and he understands the needs of the poor."

Chavez also benefits from poor Venezuelans' skepticism of his opponents, whom they see as remnants of the country's discarded political past.

Before Chavez won power, two elite parties exchanged power for four decades. Those governments were widely considered corrupt and squandered much of the country's oil wealth.

Nelson Ortiz, a stocky man standing in front of a store where he sells live chickens, said he planned to vote for Chavez.

"There are good things and bad things about the government, but with another president things would be worse," he said. "I have to thank this man because he is the first one who has used our oil for the poor."

Similar sentiments were voiced in a number of other Caracas shantytowns, which have benefited from the same social programs seen in Catia.

People were especially enthusiastic in the January 23 neighborhood, which is dominated by huge, dilapidated apartment buildings built in the late 1950s. From the windows, laundry hangs alongside large banners painted with a popular Chavez campaign slogan, "No al Pasado" ("No to the Past").

"Here, you don't have to ask," a young woman said when asked how she would vote. "Everyone in this neighborhood is with the president."

Nearby, a crowd gathered on a square in front of a neighborhood school where Chavez was expected to vote.

Around noon, the presidential motorcade arrived, leading to a burst of fireworks and cheers from the crowd. As Chavez emerged from a blue sport utility vehicle, people began singing a campaign song, "Uh, Ah, Chavez No Se Va" ("Ooh, Ah, Chavez Isn't Leaving").

Pastora Sivira, a primary school teacher, was among those singing the loudest. "We know he will win," she said. "We have waited for this president for too long to lose him now."

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