Wealthier Venezuelans jump ship

President Chvez may win reelection Sunday with votes from the poor. Others dread economic decline.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Abrahn Fernndez and his partner Germn Rojas offer a startling range of services from their tiny, almost open-air office in the run-down Caracas district of Petare. If you want to learn to drive, rent an apartment, take out an insurance policy -or obtain any kind of official document -this is the place to come.

But in the six weeks since Mr. Fernndez joined the firm, "we've sold nothing," he says. Business is so bad, he shows up to work more for the slender satisfaction of doing something than earning any money.

The frustration felt by the two entrepeneurs mirrors that of other members of the middle class. Despite the promises offered by Hugo Chvez and his new Constitution, many many are skeptical, jumping ship for more profitable shores like Florida.

Recommended: How can Venezuela resolve its political crisis? Six views.

After two decades of decline, the nation's economy nose-dived last year into its second-worst recession ever. Half-a-million people lost jobs, and the unemployment rate at one point hit 18 percent. Only an unusually high oil price has helped stave off total collapse.

Although Mr. Chvez no longer commands the astonishing 90-percent approval rating he enjoyed after his inauguration as president 18 months ago, polls suggest he will win comfortably Sunday. And Fernndez is willing to give Chvez a shot: "There's still hope. How can we turn back now?" he asks.

Nonetheless, his partner, Mr. Rojas, isn't buying all the rhetoric. He intends to vote for Francisco Arias, Chvez's main opponent (and former ally). But Fernndez doesn't understand why: "How can you join up with the people who got Venezuela into this mess in the first place?" Arias, Fernndez claims, is in league with the discredited old-line Accin Democratica (AD) and Copei parties.

Back in the 1970s, money flowed into Venezuela as never before. With the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, the country was dubbed "Saudi Venezuela," and the middle class used to enjoy regular shopping trips to Miami.

Then regarded as a relatively stable democracy in a region racked by military coups and civil war, Venezuela helped advise post-Franco Spain on its transition to democracy and sent election advisers to emerging democracies closer to home. Its governments liberally distributed aid and cheap oil.

"Just imagine," says Chvez supporter Fernndez, "we even gave a ship to Bolivia -and Bolivia doesn't have a coastline!" Mismanagement, grandiose development schemes, and rampant corruption -matched with an over-dependence on one, volatile commodity price - put paid to the dreams of ever-increasing wealth.

A senior university professor, for example, earns less in real terms now than he did as a junior professor 20 years ago. The middle class has shrunk to only about 11 percent of the 24 million population, and eight out of 10 Venezuelans live in varying degrees of poverty.

Not surprisingly, the political system that presided over this dizzying collapse could not stand the strain. Enter Lt. Col. Hugo Chvez Fras, paratroop commander and veteran coup-plotter.

Disgusted by the corruption and the cozy political cliques of AD and Copei, who carved up power among themselves, Chvez began conspiring with fellow officers and leftist civilians in the early 1980s. Their plans accelerated in 1989, when hundreds were killed by security forces after riots broke out over increased transport fares.

"Historically, all [political] crises in Venezuela have been resolved by the intervention of the armed forces," recalls retired Gen. Fernando Ochoa Antich, who was defense minister when the Chvez-led coup finally took place, on February 4, 1992. Chvez failed militarily, but after his capture, he was allowed a minute on television to call on his comrades to surrender.

As Richard Gott, author of a recent book on Chvez, points out, "One minute of air time, at a moment of personal disaster, converted him into someone perceived as the country's potential savior." Not only did he make a favorable impression on a country reaching the end of its tether, he said the coup's objectives were unattainable "for now" -a phrase that positively vibrated with the promise of a new dawn.

Chvez was jailed, but released after two years. The man he had sought to overthrow, President Carlos Andrs Prez, was impeached on corruption charges, and his nemesis eventually entered the presidential palace not on a tank but via a democratic election landslide.

In December 1998, Chvez received 56 percent of the vote. Polls today suggest he may come very close to repeating that feat. But the bare statistic conceals an uglier reality.

As Sal Cabrera, of the polling firm Consultores 21, puts it, "Chvez has lost [votes] heavily in the upper classes but gained them among the marginal classes." The country, in other words, is now polarized along class lines.

After watching the new president in office, a large segment of the middle class -including many who voted for Chvez in '98 - is desperate to leave the country. Soaring crime rates, the lack of professional opportunities, and a general sense of doom are the reasons most frequently cited.

A year of unremitting politics and revolutionary rhetoric has paralyzed private-sector investment. The money needed to put the country back on its feet - around $25 billion - sits in private bank accounts overseas. No one -Venezuelan or foreign - is investing in this economy, and the man most investors blame is Chvez.

The operations manager for removals company Clover International says outward business has tripled since the beginning of the year. "It's a stampede," she says. "I'm moving 20 families a week just to Miami." The number of Venezuelans residing in Florida has risen to 150,000, up from 5,000 at the end of the '80s.

The poor, however, have little option but to sit tight and hope for better times. Unlike Mexicans, they do not have the advantage of a long and porous land border with a rich neighbor. So they cling to the dream of the economic "golden age" promised by their hero.

In any case, adds Luis Vicente Len of the polling firm Datanlisis, a Venezu- elan will "never dump his old girlfriend, even if he can't stand her anymore, until a new one comes along. He doesn't want to look like a jerk on Saturday night."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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