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Chavez losing natural constituency

Emilio Campos was a keen backer of the leftist Venezuelan leader, but a sharp drop in living standards and government intimidation of unions have put him and other blue-collar workers in opposition.

May 03, 2010|By Chris Kraul | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela — Not long ago, miner Emilio Campos counted himself among President Hugo Chavez's most ardent supporters. He was drawn to the fiery Venezuelan leader's concern for the poor, combative rhetoric attacking the country's elites and plan to unify this gritty industrial town's labor unions.

But the sharp decline in his standard of living over the last two years, government intimidation of his union and Chavez's failure to follow through on promises have pushed Campos into the opposition camp. Last month he faced down riot police to lead a union march demanding reforms.

"We all had a feeling that progress was coming," said Campos, a 49-year-old father of two. "But Chavez's plans have been a debacle and things have only gotten worse."

Campos personifies the disaffection gnawing at the leftist president's base of support: blue-collar workers. It's largely responsible for the slide in Chavez's approval rating to its lowest level in seven years, according to a survey published last month by pollsters Alfredo Keller and Associates of Caracas, the capital.

Chavez's decline in popularity has breathed new life into opposition candidates eyeing September's congressional elections. Although Chavez, now in his 12th year in office, has outmaneuvered them in the past, often by gaming the state machinery in his favor, candidates leveraging the discontent could capture up to half of the National Assembly seats this fall, analysts predict.

Chavistas now have almost complete control of the single-chamber parliament as a result of the opposition's boycott of the last elections in 2005.

Facing voter discontent in the past, Chavez "always rose above it," political scientist Jose Vicente Carrasquero said. In 2003, with polls showing support ebbing as a recall referendum approached, Chavez invented the "missions" — social programs that offered free medical care, discount groceries and adult education to the poor. Simultaneously, a voter registration drive added 2 million voters to his hard-core base, and he easily won the vote.

Now, Chavez seems at a loss as to how to respond, political analyst Ricardo Sucre said, and an increasing number of supporters, suffering from rampant inflation, high crime, scarcities and power outages, are feeling "Chavez fatigue."

"There's a growing sense that the country is deteriorating and that Chavez is out of answers," Sucre said.

Sucre and Carrasquero say Chavez could resort to a last-minute gambit to maintain his grip on power, possibly canceling or postponing the September elections, or heightening intimidation of opponents.

With election season — and Chavez rhetoric — heating up, the panorama is unsettling in this country, the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the United States.

To understand the disaffection, visit the Campos home, where at midday on a recent weekend it was dark and sweltering. The reason: Puerto Ordaz was in the midst of a six-hour electricity blackout, part of nationwide emergency rationing Chavez put in place in January after the near-collapse of the country's hydropower system, a state of affairs critics blame on years of mismanagement.

Chavez at first blamed the electricity crisis on previous presidents, then on El Niño, Carrasquero said. In recent public addresses, he has ignored the power rationing altogether.

Campos doesn't have that luxury. Despite the lack of air conditioning, he was afraid to take his family out for a drive because traffic signals were down and the streets too hazardous.

There is no quick fix. Pedro Pinto, electrical engineering dean at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, says the system is so disabled that rationing involving cuts of 10% to 40% of power per week could last through 2011.

The blackouts are severely damaging the economy, already the worst performing in Latin America. The livelihoods of millions are at risk as shopping malls, government offices, university classrooms and factories scale back hours.

Discontent with Chavez has other origins, but none is more potent than inflation, which hit 27% last year and could reach or exceed that level this year, said Jose Manuel Puente, an economist at a Caracas-based graduate school and think tank known by its Spanish initials, IESA.

Other hot-button issues are rising crime and what many see as Chavez's attempt to quash dissent with a spate of high-profile arrests of labor leaders, political opponents and media figures. In January, the government jailed local ironworkers leader Ruben Gonzalez for alleged "conspiracy to commit a crime."

In a jailhouse interview with The Times, Gonzalez said his only crime was organizing 3,500 fellow union workers to demand back pay that has been due them for more than a year. He said he may soon have company in the slammer: Dozens more union leaders are facing criminal charges, he said.

Pollster Alfredo Keller said the arrests could discourage opposition voters from going to the polls.

"When he puts these people in jail, ordinary folks think, 'If he does this to those who are powerful, then I who have no power at all, am I very vulnerable?'" Keller said.

Campos said intimidation won't keep his union from demanding that Chavez follow through on promises, including payment of back wages, reinstatement of pensions and health insurance and commitment to better safety standards.

"It's different than what we expected from Chavez, but workers are slowly waking up," he said. "Chavez wants us to make desperate moves, but we're keeping our cool."

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