Grass-roots support for Chávez feeds his resolve

Venezuela's general strike enters its fifth week, with both sides well dug in.

It used to be an elegant shopping boulevard before President Hugo Chávez took power and allowed street vendors to set up camp. Now the Sabana Grande is a crowded marketplace, filled with cheap imports and expert pickpockets.

To the president's opponents, it is a symbol of all that is wrong with his government. To Wendy Sanchez, it's a symbol of all that is right.

"If it weren't for Chávez, we wouldn't be working right now," she says from behind her stuffed-animal stand.

Ms. Sanchez is one of millions of Venezuelans who still support the embattled president as a nationwide strike aimed at ousting him enters it fifth week. They don't see him as a dictator, a fascist, or a communist as his opponents often call him. Many, in fact, see him as a savior. It is this grass-roots support that has kept Chávez defiant in the face of opposition calls to step down, and what may make the protracted standoff drag on indefinitely.

But even as his support has plummeted to below 30 percent from above 80 percent when he was elected, experts say Chávez still believes that it is enough to keep him in power. The prior president, for instance, won with only 15 percent of the total electorate. Experts also say that if he can hold out long enough, Chávez believes that people will begin to blame the opposition for lack of food and gas - thus strengthening his position.

In fact, over the weekend, he claimed to be gaining ground against striking oil workers who have paralyzed the world's fifth largest oil exporter. "I feel so loved that I am never going to leave," Chávez said during his weekly television show, which he hosted outside the Yagua gasoline distribution center in the western state of Carabobo. "It's a treacherous oligarchy that wants to break the government and break the Venezuelan people."

While support for Chávez cuts across all social classes, his biggest support is concentrated among the lower classes. For them, it's about recognition.

"It's more of an emotional support," says Friedrich Welsch, a political science professor at Simon Bolívar University in Caracas. "They feel included in his messages and his policies. People think this is the first president in a long time that, once in power, has not forgotten about them."

Indeed, he still mentions the poor in every speech and attends international poverty conferences. He set up "people's banks," which give credit priority to rural farmers and small enterprises. He passed laws to give people title to their property. And he offered low-priced or free medical services through roaming pharmacies and clinics.

But while he has had some successes, most of his economic and social policies have produced few, if any, real results, critics say. For instance, under Chávez, the informal economy - people who work outside of government restrictions - grew by 20 percent. But poverty grew by 25 percent, with 80 percent of the population now living below the poverty line.

"His politics aren't really that far out, he's just a bad administrator and plays favorites," says Janet Kelly, a professor at the Institute of Superior Studies of Administration graduate school in Caracas.

A new poll, released last week by respected pollster Alfredo Keller, shows that even among Chávez supporters, dissatisfaction with his government runs high. Only some 15 percent believe that he has reduced unemployment, crime, and poverty.

But it's his personal appeal, not his ability to govern, that keeps people interested. He's charming, playful, and passionate, says Mr. Keller, who says that what a large majority of dissatisfied chavistas (as supporters of Chávez are known) really want is a new Chávez. Even Sanchez, who has benefited from the president's lenient policies related to street vendors, disagrees with the way he is running the country and wants change. She just doesn't see any better alternatives to Chávez.

Finding that alternative is going to be a real challenge for the opposition, says Mr. Welsch. "Someone with a little more expertise in public policy could do a far better job with less money, but they're not necessarily going to win over the poor," he says. "[The opposition] must start calming and hugging their souls, and then do something for their economical well being."

Members of the almost 40 opposition groups that make up the Democratic Coordinator are acutely aware of this fact, recently declaring poverty to be their No. 1 issue once Chávez is ousted. But few so far have reached out to the impoverished, though yesterday, opponents held rallies in two of the capital's poorest neighborhoods.

One segment of the population that no amount of reaching out to will convert are the hard-core chavistas. According to Keller, 8 percent of the country says it would take up arms to defend Chávez. Among them are hundreds of members of the Bolivarian Circles, neighborhood groups set up by Chávez to do social work. The 'circles' are criticized by opponents as being a civil militia and are said to have opened fire on an opposition demonstration in April, killing 19, leading to the president's brief ouster.

Though opposition marches tend to dominate the news, Chávez's popularity is also evident. His supporters still gather at his public appearances, holding up his portrait and reaching out to touch him.

"He has shown that he cares about us," says taxi driver José Mora, "that he recognizes what we're going through and wants to help. Nobody else has shown us that they can do that."

Material from the wires was used in this report.

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