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.

By , Staff writer

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    A seized and socialized market gets mixed reviews from shoppers. Support for President Hugo Chávez has waned in recent years.
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    Red roofs mark renovated houses under Hugo Chávez in the poor hillside community of El Valle in Caracas.
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    Residents are getting their roofs and walls renovated for free, as part of a government program that puts the same residents receiving renovations to work. Programs like these have sustained Hugo Chavez's popularity.
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Getting to Jesus Cerezo's neighborhood in the hilltop barrio of El Valle, one of the poorest areas in Caracas, requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle capable of navigating the steep, narrow curves up the side of the hill, past piles of garbage and tire-eating potholes.

But home offers no sigh of relief for Mr. Cerezo, the owner of a small grocery store. He works behind a locked gate out of fear of robbery and general violence. And, he says, he knows who's to blame: Venezuela President Hugo Chávez.

"Despite all their promises, the government is not attacking the problems at their origin," he says.

Recommended: Hugo Chávez 101: a quiz about Venezuela's ex-president

Prior to the 2006 presidential elections in Venezuela, El Valle was overflowing with Venezuelans who backed Mr. Chávez. Residents spoke with a sense of hope, of their new "missions": literacy programs, health clinics, and low-priced food. Chávez won that election in a landslide.

Today, his support is still strong here, as well as in many places throughout the country, especially marginalized areas. But many of the benefits from the social missions are being overshadowed by the larger problems afflicting Venezuelan society now, such as crime and inflation. And Chávez's support ahead of crucial legislative elections in September is waning.

"Chávez still has an important level of popularity," says José Vicente Carrasquero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. But there are significant numbers of people who "feel Chávez does not have the capacity to resolve the problems in the country. The fervor for him has diminished. It has been 11 years, and people still have the same problems."

Overreliance on oil revenues

In creating his brand of "21st-century socialism," which is redistributing wealth to the poor from the "oligarchy," as Chávez dubs the elite, the president has relied on oil revenues, and he has reduced poverty and illiteracy.

But as oil prices dropped and the world sank into financial crisis, Chávez's problems mounted. In local elections in 2008, his party lost many top posts throughout the country. Perhaps most stunning was his party's mayoral candidate's loss to the opposition in a Caracas municipality that includes the Petare slum, a traditional Chávez stronghold. Residents cited crime and inflation as their No. 1 concerns.

The economy shrank by 3.3 percent last year, and this year it is forecast to do the same. That makes it the only economy in Latin America expected to contract. Inflation hovers at around 30 percent. And Chávez has contended with a drought-induced electricity crisis, which for six months meant forced blackouts throughout the country.

Chávez responded to the economic woes by devaluing the currency this year. He has carried out a series of expropriations, too, the most recent a supermarket chain, after a string of nationalizations, including everything from the steel to telecommunication industries. All of this has paralyzed the private sector.

"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."

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."

Related:

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?

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