Hugo Chavez Sees Support Fade, Even in Venezuela Strongholds

Article excerpt

Support for Venezuela President Hugo Chavez has fallen as problems have mounted for an economy battered by falling oil prices.

Getting to Jesus Cerezo's neighborhood in the hilltop barrio of El Valle, one of the poorest areas in Caracas, requires a four- wheel-drive vehicle capable of navigating the steep, narrow curves up the side of the hill, past piles of garbage and tire-eating potholes.

But home offers no sigh of relief for Mr. Cerezo, the owner of a small grocery store. He works behind a locked gate out of fear of robbery and general violence. And, he says, he knows who's to blame: Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.

"Despite all their promises, the government is not attacking the problems at their origin," he says.

Prior to the 2006 presidential elections in Venezuela, El Valle was overflowing with Venezuelans who backed Mr. Chavez. Residents spoke with a sense of hope, of their new "missions": literacy programs, health clinics, and low-priced food. Chavez won that election in a landslide.

Today, his support is still strong here, as well as in many places throughout the country, especially marginalized areas. But many of the benefits from the social missions are being overshadowed by the larger problems afflicting Venezuelan society now, such as crime and inflation. And Chavez's support ahead of crucial legislative elections in September is waning.

"Chavez still has an important level of popularity," says Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. But there are significant numbers of people who "feel Chavez does not have the capacity to resolve the problems in the country. The fervor for him has diminished. It has been 11 years, and people still have the same problems."

Overreliance on oil revenues

In creating his brand of "21st-century socialism," which is redistributing wealth to the poor from the "oligarchy," as Chavez dubs the elite, the president has relied on oil revenues, and he has reduced poverty and illiteracy.

But as oil prices dropped and the world sank into financial crisis, Chavez's problems mounted. In local elections in 2008, his party lost many top posts throughout the country. Perhaps most stunning was his party's mayoral candidate's loss to the opposition in a Caracas municipality that includes the Petare slum, a traditional Chavez stronghold. Residents cited crime and inflation as their No. 1 concerns.

The economy shrank by 3.3 percent last year, and this year it is forecast to do the same. That makes it the only economy in Latin America expected to contract. Inflation hovers at around 30 percent. And Chavez has contended with a drought-induced electricity crisis, which for six months meant forced blackouts throughout the country.

Chavez responded to the economic woes by devaluing the currency this year. He has carried out a series of expropriations, too, the most recent a supermarket chain, after a string of nationalizations, including everything from the steel to telecommunication industries. …