Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Wealthier Venezuelans Jump Ship ; President Chvez May Win Reelection Sunday with Votes from the Poor. Others Dread Economic Decline

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Wealthier Venezuelans Jump Ship ; President Chvez May Win Reelection Sunday with Votes from the Poor. Others Dread Economic Decline

Article excerpt

Abrahn Fernndez and his partner Germn Rojas offer a startling range of services from their tiny, almost open-air office in the run-down Caracas district of Petare. If you want to learn to drive, rent an apartment, take out an insurance policy -or obtain any kind of official document -this is the place to come.

But in the six weeks since Mr. Fernndez joined the firm, "we've sold nothing," he says. Business is so bad, he shows up to work more for the slender satisfaction of doing something than earning any money.

The frustration felt by the two entrepeneurs mirrors that of other members of the middle class. Despite the promises offered by Hugo Chvez and his new Constitution, many many are skeptical, jumping ship for more profitable shores like Florida.

After two decades of decline, the nation's economy nose-dived last year into its second-worst recession ever. Half-a-million people lost jobs, and the unemployment rate at one point hit 18 percent. Only an unusually high oil price has helped stave off total collapse.

Although Mr. Chvez no longer commands the astonishing 90-percent approval rating he enjoyed after his inauguration as president 18 months ago, polls suggest he will win comfortably Sunday. And Fernndez is willing to give Chvez a shot: "There's still hope. How can we turn back now?" he asks.

Nonetheless, his partner, Mr. Rojas, isn't buying all the rhetoric. He intends to vote for Francisco Arias, Chvez's main opponent (and former ally). But Fernndez doesn't understand why: "How can you join up with the people who got Venezuela into this mess in the first place?" Arias, Fernndez claims, is in league with the discredited old-line Accin Democratica (AD) and Copei parties.

Back in the 1970s, money flowed into Venezuela as never before. With the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, the country was dubbed "Saudi Venezuela," and the middle class used to enjoy regular shopping trips to Miami.

Then regarded as a relatively stable democracy in a region racked by military coups and civil war, Venezuela helped advise post- Franco Spain on its transition to democracy and sent election advisers to emerging democracies closer to home. Its governments liberally distributed aid and cheap oil.

"Just imagine," says Chvez supporter Fernndez, "we even gave a ship to Bolivia -and Bolivia doesn't have a coastline!" Mismanagement, grandiose development schemes, and rampant corruption -matched with an over-dependence on one, volatile commodity price - put paid to the dreams of ever-increasing wealth.

A senior university professor, for example, earns less in real terms now than he did as a junior professor 20 years ago. The middle class has shrunk to only about 11 percent of the 24 million population, and eight out of 10 Venezuelans live in varying degrees of poverty.

Not surprisingly, the political system that presided over this dizzying collapse could not stand the strain. Enter Lt. Col. Hugo Chvez Fras, paratroop commander and veteran coup-plotter.

Disgusted by the corruption and the cozy political cliques of AD and Copei, who carved up power among themselves, Chvez began conspiring with fellow officers and leftist civilians in the early 1980s. …

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