Venezuela's unrealized revolution

Many of President Hugo Chávez's supporters wonder when his changes will improve their lives.

Seven years after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez first took office, an event commemorated earlier this month, Juan Francisco Rivas is still waiting for the "revolution."

His 24-square-meter makeshift house, currently inhabited by nine people, sits at a 45-degree angle atop one of the city's worst hillside slums, Petare. His roof is a single metal sheet. There is no hot water.

Mr. Rivas voted for Mr. Chávez in 1998 but today, while showing his often-flooded living room, says, "Look at this place and tell me honestly that Chávez is for the poor."

During the 1990s, Rivas worked as a carpenter and even had social security. Today he is grateful to get three days of work per week, all in the underground economy.

Meanwhile, Chávez has spent much of this month warning of a possible US invasion, preparing a citizen army, and lambasting President Bush. His rhetoric has made him a darling of leftists worldwide. Yet, ordinary Venezuelans like Mr. Rivas are growing increasingly frustrated with the country's inadequate housing, under-resourced public hospitals, and damaged roads.

Chávez, who said Sunday he may seek to lift presidential term limits to allow him to run for a third term in 2013, maintains a high domestic approval rating and has no viable challenger in the presidential election scheduled for Dec. 3. But polls show his support slipping slightly in recent months and even some of his staunchest supporters - known as Chavistas - are wondering when they will start seeing more improvements in their daily lives.

"[Chávez] is transferring responsibility for Venezuela's problems to Bush," says Luis Petrosini, an economics professor at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, who has voted for Chávez twice.

In November, cardiologist Juan Carlos De Gouveia resigned from Miguel Perez Carreño hospital, one of Venezuela's largest public hospitals. Dr. De Gouveia was raised in a poor Caracas neighborhood and spent decades serving poor Venezuelans. In his resignation letter, he described interminable battles with hospital administrators to obtain basic supplies such as sterilization equipment.

At another Caracas hospital four patients died in one night last August after its oxygen supplies ran out. This month the Venezuelan Medical Society suspended all elective procedures there, saying conditions had still not improved.

Meanwhile, the government here announced recently that it will help over 50 African countries combat malaria, even though the number of malaria cases in Venezuela in 2004 was the second highest since 1937 and twice that of when Chávez took office.

Marcial Bastitas, who lives in a poor section of Caracas, is also frustrated. Surrounded by six Chavista friends, he says that "we should take care of our problems first." They nod in agreement.

Venezuela also faces a public housing shortage. According to figures from the Venezuela Chamber of Housing, less than 30,000 homes were built in 2005 out of the 120,000 promised by Chávez.

Many of Venezuela's roads are also deteriorating. Last month the highway connecting the capital Caracas with its international airport and second largest port was closed indefinitely due to a collapsing bridge. The closure of this major artery impacts 35 percent of the country's commerce according to Veneconomia, a leading business research publication.

Truck driver Gerardo Crespo says his income has been cut in half due to the reduced number of cargo hauls he can make. He voted for Chávez in 1998 but now asks, "How many years has this government had?"

Chávez insists that he is being made out to be a scapegoat for the infrastructure problems. Last month he called discussion of the highway closure "a media strategy against me." Government officials say it has been more important to allocate funds to antipoverty programs.

To be sure, Venezuelan governments have known about the collapsing bridge for 20 years but have done little. And public hospitals have long been neglected in Venezuela. "They have never been a priority," says Dr. Asia Villegas, Caracas's top health official and a Chávez-appointee.

Dr. Villegas also emphasizes that the Chávez government's priority has been to invest in new social programs for those long-ignored by past governments. In the Barrio Adentro program, for example, Chávez has imported 20,000 Cuban physicians to work in Venezuela's slums. In 2005 alone, the government spent $651 million on this according to Veneconomia.

The Cuban-run clinics are limited to basic practice - prescribing medicine and performing routine checkups. And despite their presence in the barrios, the patient volume at Perez Carreño's Emergency Room has increased in recent years.

Chávez, responding to pressure, announced late last year a $2.5 billion effort to revamp the country's hospitals while integrating them into Barrio Adentro. But the government refuses to say what percent is earmarked for Venezuelan hospitals and how much for the Cuban-run clinics.

The working-class residents of the barrio Catia may be forgiven if they are skeptical of this new initiative. A public hospital was closed here over two years ago in order to be converted into a Barrio Adentro clinic that has yet to open.

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