Venezuelan candidate's shirts a boon for business

In a home with bare brick walls and a zinc roof, a 58-year-old seamstress with short, curly hair is sewing shirts for a young politician who she thinks has a good shot at unseating Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela.

Petra Maria Rengifo works at one of the four sewing machines that are among the few pieces of furniture in her concrete-floored home. Outside sprawls Legon, the ramshackle neighborhood of about 500 people built along a highway in the countryside east of Caracas, identical to countless other slums where millions of Venezuelans eke out a living.

Rengifo might have stayed out of the public eye had it not been for a chance occurrence: One of the shirts made by the business that she supplies was picked up by an aide to opposition presidential hopeful Henrique Capriles, and the candidate saw him wearing it.

Now, Capriles wears almost nothing but Rengifo's short-sleeved, collared shirts on the campaign trail as he tries to defeat Chavez in the country's Oct. 7 election. The shirts come in bright colors and are made of a light, wrinkle-resistant fabric.

She says she's thankful that Capriles, as well as his campaign staff and supporters, have brought in business. In fact, the garments she sews have become so popular among the candidate's supporters that they're now called "the Capriles shirt."

"I feel proud that a candidate, a (possible) president puts on a shirt I've made," Rengifo said, pressing her hands to her chest.

In the big picture, she said, it's also healthy for an economy that relies largely on imports.

"It's very good for things that are made in Venezuela to at least be sold, shown off," she said.

The surge of business has also helped Capriles win Rengifo's support, although Chavez's political base still lies within the very same segment of working class Venezuelans to which Rengifo belongs.

She said she has never met the state governor but he seems to have the interests of the poor at heart.

She's grateful, for instance, that Capriles' state government contributed sheets of zinc to help her add on to her home. Others in the neighborhood have also taken advantage of the state home improvement program to repair their homes.

Rengifo said many of her neighbors feel they have been bypassed by the social programs offered elsewhere by Chavez's government. Construction began on a school and some government-offered homes nearby, but the work wasn't finished, she said.

Her neighborhood is one of the many poor communities across the country where Capriles is trying to make inroads.

So far, Capriles has been trailing in the polls, though survey results have varied widely. Some polls touted by the government have given Chavez a lead of more than 20 percentage points, while others indicate a smaller margin for the president. One recent survey said Chavez led by about 4 percentage points.

Rengifo said many in her neighborhood don't identify strongly with either political camp. They're just the kind of uncommitted voters seen as key in the upcoming presidential vote. Capriles has been crisscrossing the country making door-to-door visits to try to win their support, in part by pledging to continue many of the aid programs Chavez began.

And he has donned Rengifo's shirts, often wearing several in a day as he strides through towns in the sweltering heat.

Capriles also has said he's proud to be supporting a local business with his clothing choices.

"My shirts are made in Venezuela, with the talent that this country has more than enough of," Capriles said during one event.

For his part, the 57-year-old Chavez has been attacking his 39-year-old rival by calling him a "rich kid" and accusing him of representing the interests of the wealthy. Chavez's critics, meanwhile, slam the president for his occasional use of designer suits and watches.

Rengifo said it was pure serendipity that she ended up sewing shirts for Capriles. She was making the shirts for a small clothing shop run by businessman Lothar Luis Gonzalez when the orders from Capriles began coming in.

Gonzalez said that he designed the casual shirt along with his son, and that sales have doubled in the past three months thanks to Capriles. His business now sells about 60 of the shirts a month, many of them to the campaign and Capriles supporters.

Gonzalez's small business also recently obtained a loan from Capriles' state government to buy new machines and expand.

Rengifo said she feels pride whenever she sees the candidate on television wearing one of her shirts.

For one Venezuelan, at least, Capriles has closed the deal.

"I think he's a humble person like me," she said.