Venezuela's Chávez nears a victory fed by free stew

Populist president leads by nearly 20 points ahead of Sunday's vote.

Odalys Ibarra has lived in the same home – a decrepit, two-bedroom brick house that she shares with 10 others – her entire life.

Yet these days, on her walk home up the steep slope of El Valle, one of the poorest neighborhoods in this capital city, she passes a free medical clinic staffed with Cuban doctors, a supermarket that sells discounted rice and tomato sauce, and a state-funded kitchen that prepares and gives out free meat stew and cookies – programs called "missions" that are the cornerstone of President Hugo Chávez's domestic policy.

While Mr. Chávez's strident anti-Americanism has caused ripples abroad – calling President Bush the devil and supporting leftist candidates and leaders throughout Latin America, as well as befriending Iran and North Korea – those with the power to vote him into another six-year term this Sunday care more about his social missions than his international mediations.

After eight years at the helm of Venezuela – having withstood a coup attempt, a national oil strike led by his opponents, and a recall referendum in 2004 that he easily won – Mr. Chávez is poised to prevail in the 2006 presidential election on Sunday. The latest state-funded poll by the US firm Evans/ McDonough puts him 19 points ahead of his only opponent, Manuel Rosales, a career politician and governor of the oil-rich western state of Zulia.

Venezuelans are bitterly divided over Chávez's ideology, but they can agree on one thing: Many will vote for him Sunday because the billions he has poured into literacy programs, free food, and doctor visits have proved a potent enticement.

"They love Chávez because Chávez is including them; he is giving them opportunity," says Luis Vicente Leon, director of the polling firm Datanalisis in Caracas.

Rosales the Retroactive?

But is Chávez solving their problems? Mr. Leon says "no" – that his missions are a tool to gain popularity, not an answer to the root problems of healthcare or poverty in the country. Others say Chávez is the only leader who cares about a new social order and that Mr. Rosales would, as so many other politicians before him, leave the majority behind.

Venezuela had been governed for decades by a political class that excluded the majority, says Rodolfo Magallanes, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "But Chávez offered something new; his popularity was immediate," he says.

Today, what he is offering indeed feels new in places like El Valle. Ms. Ibarra now takes her two children to the medical clinic down the street, where slogans such as "Long live the revolution!" hang on posters between breast feeding instructions.

The bags of rice Ibarra buys depict indigenous people kicking a devil-like figure dressed in a business suit; her milk and pasta contain excerpts from the Constitution. But what she really cares about is the price: In her local store, as in 15,000 such state-run supermarkets across the country, prices are about 30 percent less than in private grocery stores. "He is helping us; the president is with us," says Ibarra.

While the missions make a difference in individual lives, measuring Chávez's macro impact is difficult, since experts say indicators vary widely. Government numbers from the National Statistics Institute show poverty decreasing to 34 percent from 44 percent in 1998, yet opposition leaders put the number of poor Venezuelans as high as 70 percent. Government numbers show a 10-percent unemployment rate, but others say that figure does not include those working in the informal economy who don't make enough to support themselves.

Chávez's international policies have been more ambiguous. He has made important international gains – spearheading a meeting to revive OPEC in 2000 with price-setting mechanisms. He has focused on regional integration, joining Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, and focusing on energy policies in the Caribbean, says Jennifer McCoy, a Venezuela expert at Georgia State University.

But many associate his foreign policy with anti-Americanism, despite the fact that, according to the US State Department, the US is Venezuela's most important trading partner and Venezuela is one of the US's top four suppliers of oil. Indeed, a major Rosales platform is that Chávez has squandered the country's enormous oil wealth.

"He is ignoring security and employment in this country that is the fifth-largest oil producer on the planet, under this ground," says William Ojeda, a Rosales campaign leader and former opposition candidate, as he stomps his foot angrily on the floor. He says Chávez's oil programs abroad, including 90,000 barrels of oil sent daily to Cuba, have trumped a focus on crime and corruption at home.

"He is garbage," says Hector Pereira outside a shopping mall in the ritzy Las Mercedes neighborhood in Caracas. Mr. Pereira, who owns an insurance company, says he voted for Chávez initially, but says that since he aligned with Cuba, especially importing doctors into the country, his views have shifted. "I thought he was the best option, that we needed change," he says. "Chávez has shown us that he is worse."

Some say they worry that Rosales represents a return to the past – with traditional leaders who only care about the upper class – but Mr. Ojeda whips out a card with the words "Mi Negra" on it to illustrate Rosales's plan for the poor. It's a debit-card program that would direct about a fifth of Venezuela's oil income to 2.5 million of the poorest families in the country, or between $300 and $400 per family a month.

"It's a crisis of ideologies"

Yet among the biggest challenges the opposition faces is an inability to define itself beyond a group that opposes the government. Through the national oil strike in 2002 and 2003, and a referendum two years later, their ideologies have not been clear, analysts say, except for their desire to defeat Chávez. They boycotted legislative elections last year, which handed Chávez control of every seat in the National Assembly.

Angelo Rivero-Santos, a Latin America expert at Georgetown University in Washington, says the opposition's unity behind Rosales is a sign of progress for their movement. Still, he says, "as a cohesive force, it is very difficult to decipher what they stand for. It's a crisis of ideologies," he says. "If you want to defeat a charismatic leader [who] has 100-percent support in the National Assembly, 20 governorships out of 22, and the military behind him, as well as the oil industry, you have to come up with a plan other than just trying to get rid of him."

Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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