Chávez support slips in Venezuela

Food shortages and rising prices are eroding the leftist leader's approval ratings.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Suffering: Residents gathered in the poor Petare area of Venezuela's capital, Caracas, on Dec. 1, 2007, the day before a failed referendum to scrap presidential term limits.

Petare is a sprawling hillside barrio in Caracas, and poor neighborhoods like this have long been epicenters of support for Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez.

Yet when a candidate from a opposition party launched his mayoral bid here recently, residents greeted him with honking horns and enthusiastic handshakes.

"I used to believe in [Mr. Chávez], when I still believed he'd do what he promised," says Norelys Rangel, a lifelong resident here. Instead, she says, she often can't find milk or rice. In fact, she says, life has gotten harder.

Petare and other neighborhoods like it are still very much Chávez territory, but signs of his waning support in those areas highlights a broader trend. Despite the country's vast oil wealth and near record oil prices, Venezuelans are complaining about product shortages, crime, and high inflation.

Many also say the president too often meddles in international affairs while problems mount at home. For them, Chávez's move this week to deploy troops to the border with Colombia – which is slowing the flow of key goods during milk and meat shortages – is a case in point.

It all adds up to a key question: Will Chávez be able to ride out this political storm or is waning enthusiasm irreversible?

"I think he has a chance; I don't think it's easy," says Daniel Hellinger, a Latin America expert at Webster University in St. Louis. "He has to somehow overcome the administrative inefficiencies and corruption in the ranks of government itself…. Governance is the key for this current year. He has to show progress."

So far he seems to be placing his attention elsewhere.

Chávez's role in regional crisis

He has taken center stage in the regional crisis that erupted this week after Colombia's military launched an airstrike against leftist rebels based in Ecuador, killing a top leader of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). Chávez – whom Colombia accuses of supporting the rebels – threatened war if Colombia were to pursue rebels on Venezuelan soil and has since sent 9,000 troops to the border. The trading relationship between the two is valued at $5 billion a year, and Colombia is a top supplier of food to Venezuela.

"What he is doing is what semi-authoritarian leaders often do: saber-rattling to distract their people's attention from inflation or food shortages," says Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.

But it could backfire. Chávez's first blow came in December, when voters rejected a constitutional referendum that included 69 amendments ranging from reducing the workweek to eliminating term limits for presidents. It was his first defeat after a long winning streak for the former military officer.

Since then he has called for a year of "revision, rectification, and relaunching." William Izarra, a retired Air Force officer and chief ideologue in the Chávez movement, runs workshops throughout Venezuela to teach the values of "21st century socialism." "Our goal is to convince people that the government is on the right track," he says, "and from what I've seen, President Chávez has total support from the bases of the movement."

Indeed, his most resolute supporters still see little fault in a leader who has poured billions of dollars into social programs, called misiones, which have given the poor access to college degrees, literacy programs, food kitchens, and medical care. Maria Garcia, for example, is a lifelong resident of Petare who studied for the first time in her life through Mision Ribas. "I think we have the best president in the world," she says.

But that staunch support is increasingly less widespread. Ana Rodriguez, who has a 3-year-old son, stands in a line wrapping around the corner of a grocery store waiting for milk – one of many products increasingly hard to find.

The government claims that opposition store owners have hoarded products to undermine the government, but critics say that price controls have taxed producers, leaving them with little incentive. Ms. Rodriguez says she does not understand the complexities of the situation, but sees one offender: "It's the government's fault."

Residents worry about their safety – Caracas suffers the reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America – and the high cost of living. There are fears that the new currency, the "strong Bolivar," will be devalued, giving rise to a black market where dollars are traded for well over the official rate of 2.1 to 1.

Colombia spat may add to woes

The dispute with Colombia could add to his troubles: Colombia officials claim that a laptop owned by slain leader Raul Reyes shows evidence that Venezuela gave $300 million to the FARC. Chávez has rejected that claim.

Chávez's approval has slipped, according to some polls published in the local media, to 40 percent from 60 percent two years ago.

His government faces a pivotal moment during mayoral and gubernatorial elections in November.

"Usually there is an erosion of enthusiasm for anyone that's been in power for so long. I wouldn't see it as a sign of upcoming defeat for Chávez," says Steve Ellner, a Venezuela-based author of "Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon." "But the Chávez movement is particularly weak at the local and statewide level."

William Ojeda, the opposition leader who launched the mayoral bid in Petare, lost this race before. But he claims that "Chavista" sentiment has been so dampened here that he has a new chance. "There is a rejection of this centralized power," he says. "We want a country with pluralism, development, and prosperity."

That is why Ms. Rangel says she attended his opposition rally in her neighborhood – plagued by poverty – after years of supporting Chávez. She says she is anxious for change, adding that she's not the only one: "I don't think Chávez is sleeping as well at night as he used to."

Daniel Cancel contributed from Caracas.

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