Chávez support slips in Venezuela
Food shortages and rising prices are eroding the leftist leader's approval ratings.
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Yet when a candidate from a opposition party launched his mayoral bid here recently, residents greeted him with honking horns and enthusiastic handshakes.
"I used to believe in [Mr. Chávez], when I still believed he'd do what he promised," says Norelys Rangel, a lifelong resident here. Instead, she says, she often can't find milk or rice. In fact, she says, life has gotten harder.
Petare and other neighborhoods like it are still very much Chávez territory, but signs of his waning support in those areas highlights a broader trend. Despite the country's vast oil wealth and near record oil prices, Venezuelans are complaining about product shortages, crime, and high inflation.
Many also say the president too often meddles in international affairs while problems mount at home. For them, Chávez's move this week to deploy troops to the border with Colombia – which is slowing the flow of key goods during milk and meat shortages – is a case in point.
It all adds up to a key question: Will Chávez be able to ride out this political storm or is waning enthusiasm irreversible?
"I think he has a chance; I don't think it's easy," says Daniel Hellinger, a Latin America expert at Webster University in St. Louis. "He has to somehow overcome the administrative inefficiencies and corruption in the ranks of government itself…. Governance is the key for this current year. He has to show progress."
So far he seems to be placing his attention elsewhere.
Chávez's role in regional crisis
He has taken center stage in the regional crisis that erupted this week after Colombia's military launched an airstrike against leftist rebels based in Ecuador, killing a top leader of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). Chávez – whom Colombia accuses of supporting the rebels – threatened war if Colombia were to pursue rebels on Venezuelan soil and has since sent 9,000 troops to the border. The trading relationship between the two is valued at $5 billion a year, and Colombia is a top supplier of food to Venezuela.
"What he is doing is what semi-authoritarian leaders often do: saber-rattling to distract their people's attention from inflation or food shortages," says Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.
But it could backfire. Chávez's first blow came in December, when voters rejected a constitutional referendum that included 69 amendments ranging from reducing the workweek to eliminating term limits for presidents. It was his first defeat after a long winning streak for the former military officer.