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VENEZUELA - A Nation On Edge, June 2003

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Reporter’s Notebook: Dateline Caracas
As Venezuela Slides, the Poor Stand By Their Man
by New York Times and FRONTLINE/World correspondent Juan Forero

CARACAS, Venezuela, April 25, 2003 -- Unemployed and penniless, Ermis Montilla, 31, lives for now with his family in a shack made of cardboard and corrugated tin. But he has nothing but praise for President Hugo Chavez.

With building materials from the government, and advice from army engineers, Mr. Montilla is proudly constructing his own home on a hillside of Caracas. He has even become a community leader, imbued with a sense of civic consciousness he says Mr. Chavez has awakened in him.

"The opponents of Chavez always promised and promised but never spoke to us," said Mr. Montilla, a father of three. "Now, we have rights. Before, when we talked, no one listened."

But even as President Chavez has cast himself as a champion of the downtrodden, the paradox of his popularity is that there are more and more people like Mr. Montilla: living in poverty but ardent supporters of the president.

Since Mr. Chavez was elected in 1998, poverty has grown an estimated 10 percent and now includes nearly 68 percent of Venezuelans. Economists expect the underclass to grow still more in coming months, as the economy continues a tailspin that began last year in the wake of a short-lived coup against Mr. Chavez and three national strikes led by his opposition.

"The opponents of Chavez always promised and promised but never spoke to us. Now, we have rights. Before, when we talked, no one listened." -- Ermis Montilla, father of three
"If there is more unemployment, more poverty, more crime, why are the poor still with Chavez?" asked Ana Maria Sanjuan, a sociologist at the Central University. "The reason is simple. Chavez is the only one who has addressed the poor, the one who gives a hope to the poor about a possible inclusion."

Beyond his direct apeals to the poor, analysts note, Mr. Chavez has also carefully directed his assistance programs, like the one benefiting Mr. Montilla.

Taken as a whole, these programs fail to form a broad, coherent public policy, said Luis Pedro Espana, a poverty expert and director of the Institute of Economic and Social Studies at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. But they go a long way toward explaining Mr. Chavez's enduring popularity as the economy shrinks.

The programs -- ranging from new homes to subsidized food markets to mobile clinics -- are welcomed in long-neglected barrios, deftly spread, and then their importance inflated, Mr. Espana said.

"The government does not really have a social policy," he said. "What they have is social theater."

No one blames Mr. Chavez for bringing poverty -- he won office in 1998 after two decades in which poverty rose to nearly 60 percent from 28 percent of the population.

But the downward economic slide has come hard and fast, particularly since last year. Indeed, the economy may fall by 17 percent, unemployment is approaching 20 percent, thousands of businesses are closing and capital flight amounts to billions of dollars. The government and many economists in the United States blame the effects of a two-month national strike called in December by Chavez opponents. The opposition blames government mismanagement.

In any case, Mr. Chavez retains the support of nearly 40 percent of Venezuelans, higher than other Latin American leaders and vital if he is to avoid losing power in a referendum that opposition groups are demanding for later this year.

Mr. Chavez's poverty programs, and his vocal promotion of the rights of the poor, have been remarkably effective in mobilizing a community as a rule not politically active.

"The government does not really have a social policy. What they have is social theater." -- poverty expert Luis Pedro Espana
In the wretched neighborhoods ringing Caracas, where the president has drawn most of his support, it is easy to find throngs faithful to the man they call "my commander."

"He moves us and that is why I am here," said Marisela Araujo, 36, as she waited to catch a glimpse of Mr. Chavez at the opening of a government-subsidized food market. "The people here -- we are not paid like the opposition says. No one told us to come. We come here because we love him."

In interviews across several of Caracas's poorest neighborhoods, residents did not readily point to tangible benefits under Mr. Chavez's time in office. Those were seemingly in short supply.

Instead, most quickly pointed to the Constitution, the 50-cent bible of Mr. Chavez's self-styled revolution, for having instilled pride and provided direction.

Critics call the Constitution a mobilizing tool manipulated by Mr. Chavez. But the devoted tout articles in the jumbled document that give rights to people to undertake their own urban planning projects, embark on community activism and allow them to seek titles to plots where they have built makeshift homes.

The Constitution goes hand in hand with government efforts to organize local councils that do everything from paving sidewalks to picking up trash. Even where Venezuelans still live in poverty, they say they now believe they have a voice in the political process.

"The people have learned how to build," said Jose Gregorio Blanco, a community leader. "The president wants people to go and learn, to learn how to get things done."

More tangibly, the government has more than doubled spending on education, mostly for teacher salaries. While other spending is murkier, the government is clearly funneling aid and services toward poor neighborhoods.

In the barrio Las Marias, where Mr. Blanco provided a tour, five buildings with 288 apartments for the poor are being built. In Isaias Medina Angarita, residents thank Mr. Chavez for paved sidewalks. In the Sucre district, the Florencio Jimenez school, long neglected, now serves free lunches and offers expanded school hours for 563 pupils.

The government has also set up people's banks, giving credit to small enterprises. It is handing out titles to poor squatters in Caracas slums. Low-priced or free medical services are provided through roaming clinics.

The programs have the feel of old-style patronage. With them, Mr. Chavez has managed to erase doubt among followers by taking up the populist script in a way that has not been seen in Latin America in recent years, spending hours with crowds of followers.

In Caricuao, a poor neighborhood of Soviet-style apartment blocks in southwest Caracas, his aides led a hunched group of elderly women from the crowd and provided them seating under a white tent, just feet from the president, who was there to inaugurate the first of what will be 100 markets across the city. Afterward, they expressed everlasting loyalty.

"He does not care if you are rich or poor," explained Irda de Belandria, 66. "His heart is so pure."

But for the neighborhood, the affection for Mr. Chavez may outlast the material effect of the markets, which offer only a modest assortment of goods like canned products, powdered milk and sugar. Even the actual opening was unclear.

The president left, and military officers shut the metal gates over the storefront. One woman asked when it would reopen.

"I do not know," a military official said. "They told us tomorrow, maybe."

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This article was originally published in The New York Times on April 30, 2003. Copyright 2003 The New York Times. For more New York Times articles please visit

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