Chavez's Popularity Holds On Among Venezuela's Poor

Gasoline pumps are drying up and food supplies in many places are dwindling, but President Hugo Chavez still has broad support — especially among Venezuela's poor.

Chavez's foes launched a general strike on Dec. 2 to force him to resign or allow early elections, before a possible recall vote in August.

They are betting that strangling Venezuela's oil-dependent economy will motivate Venezuelans to demand his resignation or force a vote.

But millions not widely reported on by private media, especially among Venezuela's poor and working class, insist they won't allow a return of a corrupt two-party system that Chavez displaced in 1999.

"He can't leave us. It would be terrible," said Beatriz Nunez, 51, a Caracas storekeeper who has ignored the strike led by organized labor, business leaders, civic groups and many private media.

Nunez was among those who elected Chavez to power by a landslide in 1998 and re-elected him in 2000. They still see the former paratrooper as their only hope for change in a country where the riches generated by vast oil reserves have failed to reach the masses.

An estimated 80 percent of Venezuela's 24 million people live in poverty. Chavez campaigned on a promise to eradicate a 40-year, corrupt democratic system that rewarded loyalists and shortchanged the poor.

As he has tried to do so, through land reform and other programs, his popularity has dropped, especially among the upper classes who revile him.

Chronic political instability and poor management — his government has seen dozens of Cabinet changes — led Venezuela's economy to shrink 6 percent during the first nine months of 2002.

Inflation has reached 30 percent, and unemployment 17 percent. However, the real unemployment figure could be higher because nearly half of workers have off-the-books jobs not tracked by the government.

Still, in many districts of Caracas, the capital, crowds of admirers still regularly gather at Chavez's public appearances clutching portraits of the president or wearing imitations of his trademark red beret. Many plead with him personally to solve their economic problems. Others are content just to see or touch him.

"They know he is their last hope. It's Chavez or a return to the old politics, which were 40 years of failure," said Guillermo Garcia Ponce, a leading ideologue of Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution."

Few among the opposition are reaching out to these people. Moreover, Chavez has won strong loyalty pledges from top military brass in recent weeks — though he did purge dozens of officers after a brief April coup.

Chavez's approval rating stands at about 30 percent, according to a November poll by private pollster Datanalisis. Among the poor shantytowns ringing Caracas, his popularity is as high as 45 percent. However, few polls are conducted in the countryside, where public works programs abound.

Chavez has introduced social development programs, but results have been mixed. The high-profile Plan Bolivar 2000 ended in failure and a flurry of accusations of misspent money.

Plan Bolivar 2000 employed soldiers and civilians across Venezuela to build roads, give health care and repair schools for the poor. The project bombed after its coordinator, an army general, was dismissed amid allegations of corruption.

Other projects have been more successful.

"People's banks" give credit priority to rural farmers and small enterprises traditionally excluded from the commercial banking system. Roaming pharmacies and medical clinics offer cut-rate prices or free services. Hundreds of patients have been flown free of charge to Cuba for medical treatment. The government has sponsored several "community" radio stations where residents have a say in their communities.

Chavez became a popular hero after leading a failed military coup in 1992 as a paratroop commander. Imprisoned for two years, he began an alternative political movement, named MBR-200, which pledged to do away with the political status quo. He recruited former guerrilla leaders and a swath of politicians from left and center.

Chavez's most radical support is organized in hundreds of so-called Bolivarian Circles — neighborhood groups coordinated by the government that perform social projects. Critics call them a civilian militia, alleging they instigate violent attacks against the political opposition.

But most Chavez supporters are far from radical and appear willing to patiently wait for results.

"Chavez talks sense," said William Di Pietro, 44, an unemployed computer technician. "He's a change from the past, but there's still a long way to go. This thing could take decades."