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Chavez's base wobbles as election looms

Published:Wednesday | September 8, 2010 | 12:00 AM

On a hilltop overlooking Caracas, dozens of shacks made of wood scraps and corrugated zinc have risen among tall weeds - a new slum tacked on to an old one as the poor face harder times in Venezuela.

Gloria Luna moved here believing President Hugo Chavez's brand of socialism would make life better for her family.

Four years later her husband works occasional construction jobs and she sells lottery tickets. The couple and their four children, one of them 13 and pregnant, have no running water, their electricity comes through an improvised, illegal hook-up, and rain turns the dirt roads to mud.

"We've been forgotten here," she said. "I feel so disillusioned."

Ever since Chavez took office 11 years ago, the poor have been his base, and they were encouraged by five years of oil-fuelled economic growth that lifted millions above the poverty line from 2004 to 2008. The poorest are still his biggest supporters, but Luna says she won't vote in congressional elections on September 26 because she doesn't believe in either pro- or anti-Chavez politicians.

Erosion of support

Her disenchantment reflects an erosion of support for Chavez in the past two years as more Venezuelans grow frustrated with recession, 30 per cent annual inflation, bad public services and rampant crime.

Chavez is fighting to maintain his United Socialist Party of Venezuela's dominance of the National Assembly in the approaching elections and keep his "Bolivarian Revolution" going.

His own job is not at stake, but his popularity hit a seven-year low of 36 per cent in July, according to the Venezuelan polling firm Consultores 21. The survey also found his support shrinking in the barrios that have long underpinned his political survival.

Seeing an opportunity, opposition politicians are increasingly campaigning in slums once considered solid Chavez territory.

In about three dozen interviews with The Associated Press in Caracas' poorest slums, many people reeled off a litany of grievances including crime, inflation and lack of sewers and running water.

Only a few of those who identified themselves as traditional Chavez supporters expressed an intent to vote against his party, but many suggested they are feeling so disillusioned that they might not bother to cast ballots.

"Everything is worse now. With this crime, the high cost of living, there is no hope," said Gustavo Solorzano, a 31-year-old barber in the Petare slum.

In his wallet was the ID card of a younger brother shot and killed. He said people in his neighbourhood dive for cover when gunfire rings out at night.

Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. The government has not released complete statistics recently, but the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, which researches crime, estimated more than 16,000 homicides last year in the country of 28 million people - up from fewer than 6,000 in 1999 when Chavez took office. Last year, about 80 per cent of the victims were from poor families, it said.

Chavez says his government is making strides against crime with a newly established national police force, and is addressing some of the root causes by helping the poor.

There are health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors, adult education and cash benefits for single mothers, subsidised state-run markets and government lunch counters. Some slums are now reachable by cable car.

Chavez has regularly raised the minimum monthly wage, now standing at some 1,200 bolivars, or US$462 at a preferential exchange rate used for basic needs such as food.

But buying power has been shrinking since 2008, and dropped 7.7 per cent in the second quarter this year, according to Central Bank estimates.

High prices for oil, Venezuela's chief export, fed an economic boom between 2004 and 2008 and helped cut the share of Venezuelans living in poverty from about 60 per cent to 33 per cent during that period, according to the government's National Statistics Institute.

It puts the present rate at about 30 per cent, and says the number living in extreme poverty has also fallen sharply.

Chavez counts it as a triumph that the poverty rate has halved. Yet in the past two years, the recession and racing inflation have been eating away at those gains and breeding discontent.

Research shows the slums have also been growing, driven largely by migration of people from depressed rural areas to Caracas.

Luis Pedro Espana, a sociology professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, calculates that the number of shanty homes increased from 140,000 in 1997 to 407,000 in 2007.

Lack of water

That increase is evident in La Pedrera, sprawled on a rugged Caracas hillside. Some live in dirt-floor shacks and their only water comes from a truck that periodically makes deliveries.

Rosa Garcia, 28 and pregnant with her fifth child, must climb a steep path through boulders to her home, a single room with two plastic bottles serving as a toilet.

She said the bakery where her husband worked occasionally has closed and he does odd jobs such as cutting weeds. She applied for a government programme that would have got her a US$70 benefit every two weeks, but said she never heard back.

"Here I am, waiting," she said.

The Consultores 21 survey of 1,500 people in late June and early July showed Chavez's popularity has dropped 12 percentage points over the past 18 months, said pollster Saul Cabrera. It gave an error margin of 2.3 percentage points.

The pollsters did not say whether they measured his rivals' ratings, but other soundings have repeatedly shown that Chavez remains the country's most popular politician.

Cabrera said Chavez is supported by about 60 per cent of the poorest class of Venezuelans, but no longer has a majority in the other four income classes, including the rest of the poor.

When opposition politicians Enrique Mendoza and Maria Corina Machado recently visited Petare, they did not attract much attention.

Most of the slum-dwellers they greeted on their doorsteps were cordial, but a few Chavez supporters waved red rags from their windows in protest, and one woman shouted a Chavez slogan: "Fascists! You will not return!"

Gregorio Mattey, a 33-year-old construction worker, said he has done well under Chavez.

"I consider myself a revolutionary," he said. "I'm living better now because I have my house, my work."

Yet, he acknowledged inflation is squeezing him and he fears his 10-year-old son could get caught up in crime and drugs.

- AP