One Chavista explains how 'Father Chávez' brought dignity to Venezuela's poor

Community worker Nancy Monsalve has lived all her life in the tough Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero. She says life under Hugo Chávez has improved significantly.

Rafael Serrano/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Sign of support: Nancy Monsalve (second from left) volunteers as treasurer of a community council in Caracas, Venezuela, an initiative implemented by President Hugo Chávez to discuss and fix local problems. Although Mr. Chávez has no lack of critics, many poor people here maintain a passionate support for him, saying their lives have improved in the past decade.

President Hugo Chávez might have many critics, but he can also count on legions of passionate supporters – many of them poor – who say he's the first leader to take their problems seriously.

One such supporter is Nancy Monsalve. The middle-aged community worker, who has lived all her life in the tough Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, says life under Mr. Chávez has improved significantly. "I complained against the system because we were repressed," she says of life before Chávez came to power in 1999.

Ms. Monsalve says there were often curfews imposed by the National Guard in her neighborhood, a poor slum in the western reaches of Caracas and one of the strongholds of support for Mr. Chávez's leftist movement.

"There were curfews," she says. "You couldn't go out after 6 in the evening to go shopping. We were censored 100 percent. You couldn't say what you thought because automatically you would be thrown in jail."

When Chávez was swept to power by the 1998 elections, Monsalve says that the marginalized poor communities could relate to his ideology.

"Ordinary people like us, who were in disagreement with what was going on, identified closely with the process led by Chávez's government," she says. "We now feel free to say 'It's good, or it's bad.' Now, the National Guard looks at us with respect and dignity. That kind of thing has changed in the last 10 years."

Since 2006, she has volunteered as treasurer of a community council, an initiative implemented by Chávez to discuss and fix local problems. Twenty-three elected members of the council, representing 650 families, communicate with departments of the government to address the neighborhood's most pressing needs.

The group has already received funds to replace the corroded iron pipes that deliver potable water into their homes with plastic tubes. Another change has seen natural gas piped directly into the community's kitchens.

Monsalve is also a member of the community bank, a scheme that allows communities to administer microloans to small businesses. "If someone wants to create a sewing cooperative, the bank lends them money to buy machines and we take account of their income and who works there. We stipulate the payment norms," she says. "If a state bank came to do this, the policies of the bank would make it unviable because of interest rates."

The community bank lends money at variable interest rates of 6 or 7 percent, which is far below what private banks offer, and also gives businesses a three-month breathing space to allow themselves to become established.

Monsalve disputes critics' claims that Chávez's social initiatives are unsustainable and are creating a dependency on the state. She cites the microloan program as an initiative that is creating long-lasting employment.

"It's not that 'Father Chávez' is always going to give us handouts. If we want to live better we have a responsibility to do it ourselves," she says.

Chávez's social initiatives have made him popular in her barrio, she says, "You can feel a passion for the revolution here. There's a lot of 'red' people here – people who are with the government."

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