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
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. …