Hugo Chávez sees support fade, even in Venezuela strongholds
Support for Venezuela President Hugo Chávez has fallen as problems have mounted for an economy battered by falling oil prices.
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"They are only investing enough to maintain operations," says Asdrubal Oliveros, an economist in Caracas. "Any business feels it can be the next victim, so it will not make big investments."Skip to next paragraph
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Still dismissing critics
Chávez has dismissed talk that his socialist project, known as "the process," is at risk. "The economy that's falling in Venezuela is the capitalist economy," Chávez replied when Venezuela's central bank reported the economy shrank 5.8 percent in the first quarter of the year. He said his opponents are "celebrating, but they don't realize that what they're celebrating is the wake of capitalism.… Let them continue celebrating. Put out candles at the funeral because we're going to bury Venezuelan capitalism."
Such rhetoric resonates with many Venezuelans, one reason Chávez's popularity remains relatively high (48 percent approval in May) after 11 years in office. Still, Jose Vicente Leon, a pollster in Caracas, says that Chávez's popularity had fallen considerably, from 61 percent in February 2009 to 42 percent the same month a year later.
That's what makes El Valle such an important bellwether. On a recent morning, a half-dozen men are sweating as they hammer out new tin roofs and reinforce crumbling walls. It is part of a government program called TriColor that hires locals to renovate housing. "He is the only one who has ever helped us out," says Carolina Espinoza, contracted as the coordinator for TriColor on her street. Her house was one of the first renovated. "As long as he keeps supporting the people, the people will keep supporting him," Ms. Espinoza says.
Aside from Chávez, who else could lead?
And yet, such sentiments of support that seemed so universal just 3-1/2 years ago now appear to represent only part of the neighborhood.
Edgar Santos, a driver of one of the vehicles that make the slow passage to the neighborhood, says that violence, inflation, and shortages of basic items such as butter or sugar have caused him to turn from the president. "Everything Chávez does is for other countries," says Mr. Santos. "I don't think his missions have really changed lives here."
Adds Cerezo: "I thought, like so many other Venezuelans, that he would create a new country."
What this erosion of support means for elections in September – and the presidential elections in 2012 – remains a question. Judging from the past, Chávez could do something radical to garner votes. And his followers, even those who may be tiring of his presidency, see no viable alternative, which has always been Chávez's strength.
"The real battle in the upcoming election is between Chávez: the one who has a government incapable of solving problems, versus Chávez with money, Chávez with charisma," says Mr. Leon. "It is not between Chávez and the opposition."
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Crime and inflation now overshadow Hugo Chávez's ambitious social missions and regional star power. Those factors may effect the 2012 elections. But lacking a viable opposition, can Mr. Chávez hang on again just by turning on the charm?