Venezuela's Chávez nears a victory fed by free stew
Populist president leads by nearly 20 points ahead of Sunday's vote.
Odalys Ibarra has lived in the same home – a decrepit, two-bedroom brick house that she shares with 10 others – her entire life.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet these days, on her walk home up the steep slope of El Valle, one of the poorest neighborhoods in this capital city, she passes a free medical clinic staffed with Cuban doctors, a supermarket that sells discounted rice and tomato sauce, and a state-funded kitchen that prepares and gives out free meat stew and cookies – programs called "missions" that are the cornerstone of President Hugo Chávez's domestic policy.
While Mr. Chávez's strident anti-Americanism has caused ripples abroad – calling President Bush the devil and supporting leftist candidates and leaders throughout Latin America, as well as befriending Iran and North Korea – those with the power to vote him into another six-year term this Sunday care more about his social missions than his international mediations.
After eight years at the helm of Venezuela – having withstood a coup attempt, a national oil strike led by his opponents, and a recall referendum in 2004 that he easily won – Mr. Chávez is poised to prevail in the 2006 presidential election on Sunday. The latest state-funded poll by the US firm Evans/ McDonough puts him 19 points ahead of his only opponent, Manuel Rosales, a career politician and governor of the oil-rich western state of Zulia.
Venezuelans are bitterly divided over Chávez's ideology, but they can agree on one thing: Many will vote for him Sunday because the billions he has poured into literacy programs, free food, and doctor visits have proved a potent enticement.
"They love Chávez because Chávez is including them; he is giving them opportunity," says Luis Vicente Leon, director of the polling firm Datanalisis in Caracas.
But is Chávez solving their problems? Mr. Leon says "no" – that his missions are a tool to gain popularity, not an answer to the root problems of healthcare or poverty in the country. Others say Chávez is the only leader who cares about a new social order and that Mr. Rosales would, as so many other politicians before him, leave the majority behind.
Venezuela had been governed for decades by a political class that excluded the majority, says Rodolfo Magallanes, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "But Chávez offered something new; his popularity was immediate," he says.
Today, what he is offering indeed feels new in places like El Valle. Ms. Ibarra now takes her two children to the medical clinic down the street, where slogans such as "Long live the revolution!" hang on posters between breast feeding instructions.
The bags of rice Ibarra buys depict indigenous people kicking a devil-like figure dressed in a business suit; her milk and pasta contain excerpts from the Constitution. But what she really cares about is the price: In her local store, as in 15,000 such state-run supermarkets across the country, prices are about 30 percent less than in private grocery stores. "He is helping us; the president is with us," says Ibarra.