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Chávez support slips in Venezuela

Food shortages and rising prices are eroding the leftist leader's approval ratings.

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Since then he has called for a year of "revision, rectification, and relaunching." William Izarra, a retired Air Force officer and chief ideologue in the Chávez movement, runs workshops throughout Venezuela to teach the values of "21st century socialism." "Our goal is to convince people that the government is on the right track," he says, "and from what I've seen, President Chávez has total support from the bases of the movement."

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Indeed, his most resolute supporters still see little fault in a leader who has poured billions of dollars into social programs, called misiones, which have given the poor access to college degrees, literacy programs, food kitchens, and medical care. Maria Garcia, for example, is a lifelong resident of Petare who studied for the first time in her life through Mision Ribas. "I think we have the best president in the world," she says.

But that staunch support is increasingly less widespread. Ana Rodriguez, who has a 3-year-old son, stands in a line wrapping around the corner of a grocery store waiting for milk – one of many products increasingly hard to find.

The government claims that opposition store owners have hoarded products to undermine the government, but critics say that price controls have taxed producers, leaving them with little incentive. Ms. Rodriguez says she does not understand the complexities of the situation, but sees one offender: "It's the government's fault."

Residents worry about their safety – Caracas suffers the reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America – and the high cost of living. There are fears that the new currency, the "strong Bolivar," will be devalued, giving rise to a black market where dollars are traded for well over the official rate of 2.1 to 1.

Colombia spat may add to woes

The dispute with Colombia could add to his troubles: Colombia officials claim that a laptop owned by slain leader Raul Reyes shows evidence that Venezuela gave $300 million to the FARC. Chávez has rejected that claim.

Chávez's approval has slipped, according to some polls published in the local media, to 40 percent from 60 percent two years ago.

His government faces a pivotal moment during mayoral and gubernatorial elections in November.

"Usually there is an erosion of enthusiasm for anyone that's been in power for so long. I wouldn't see it as a sign of upcoming defeat for Chávez," says Steve Ellner, a Venezuela-based author of "Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon." "But the Chávez movement is particularly weak at the local and statewide level."

William Ojeda, the opposition leader who launched the mayoral bid in Petare, lost this race before. But he claims that "Chavista" sentiment has been so dampened here that he has a new chance. "There is a rejection of this centralized power," he says. "We want a country with pluralism, development, and prosperity."

That is why Ms. Rangel says she attended his opposition rally in her neighborhood – plagued by poverty – after years of supporting Chávez. She says she is anxious for change, adding that she's not the only one: "I don't think Chávez is sleeping as well at night as he used to."

Daniel Cancel contributed from Caracas.

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