Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Grass-Roots Support for Chavez Feeds His Resolve ; Venezuela's General Strike Enters Its Fifth Week, with Both Sides Well Dug In

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Grass-Roots Support for Chavez Feeds His Resolve ; Venezuela's General Strike Enters Its Fifth Week, with Both Sides Well Dug In

Article excerpt

It used to be an elegant shopping boulevard before President Hugo Chavez took power and allowed street vendors to set up camp. Now the Sabana Grande is a crowded marketplace, filled with cheap imports and expert pickpockets.

To the president's opponents, it is a symbol of all that is wrong with his government. To Wendy Sanchez, it's a symbol of all that is right.

"If it weren't for Chavez, we wouldn't be working right now," she says from behind her stuffed-animal stand.

Ms. Sanchez is one of millions of Venezuelans who still support the embattled president as a nationwide strike aimed at ousting him enters it fifth week. They don't see him as a dictator, a fascist, or a communist as his opponents often call him. Many, in fact, see him as a savior. It is this grass-roots support that has kept Chavez defiant in the face of opposition calls to step down, and what may make the protracted standoff drag on indefinitely.

But even as his support has plummeted to below 30 percent from above 80 percent when he was elected, experts say Chavez still believes that it is enough to keep him in power. The prior president, for instance, won with only 15 percent of the total electorate. Experts also say that if he can hold out long enough, Chavez believes that people will begin to blame the opposition for lack of food and gas - thus strengthening his position.

In fact, over the weekend, he claimed to be gaining ground against striking oil workers who have paralyzed the world's fifth largest oil exporter. "I feel so loved that I am never going to leave," Chavez said during his weekly television show, which he hosted outside the Yagua gasoline distribution center in the western state of Carabobo. "It's a treacherous oligarchy that wants to break the government and break the Venezuelan people."

While support for Chavez cuts across all social classes, his biggest support is concentrated among the lower classes. For them, it's about recognition.

"It's more of an emotional support," says Friedrich Welsch, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas. "They feel included in his messages and his policies. People think this is the first president in a long time that, once in power, has not forgotten about them."

Indeed, he still mentions the poor in every speech and attends international poverty conferences. He set up "people's banks," which give credit priority to rural farmers and small enterprises. He passed laws to give people title to their property. And he offered low-priced or free medical services through roaming pharmacies and clinics.

But while he has had some successes, most of his economic and social policies have produced few, if any, real results, critics say. For instance, under Chavez, the informal economy - people who work outside of government restrictions - grew by 20 percent. …

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