Why Chavez Is a Shoo-in: It's the Economy, Stupid

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks to reporters at a news conference in Caracas November 30, 2006.

Listening to his campaign speeches, you might think Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was running against George Bush — whom he has been known to call "the devil" — rather than Manuel Rosales in Sunday's presidential election. The Venezuelan leader is convinced that Washington is behind Rosales's effort to unseat him, and told an enormous campaign rally on Sunday that his real opponent was the "imperialist government of the United States." But the President's supporters say his hostility to the Bush Administration is not the main reason Chavez holds a commanding 20-point lead over Rosales according to most polls. Instead, his support is based on the myriad development programs he has set up to provide cheaper food, free education and free health care for the poor.

"Foreign policy has an effect, but obviously a leader grows stronger through the solution of internal problems," said deputy William Querales, who is on the National Assembly's foreign policy committee. "President Chavez has confronted the problem of poverty and the serious social problems in our country." The opposition counters by pointing to studies showing that Chavez has failed to put a major dent in poverty and that crime has actually increased. But many in the dilapidated barrios on the outskirts of Caracas say they are better off since Chavez was elected in 1998. And since the majority of Venezuelan voters are from the lowest income brackets, that perception is what will count most on Sunday.

One community that might be expected to ask how much Chavez had done for them would be the residents of Tacagua, a dilapidated neighborhood clinging to a mountainside near Caracas, where many homes are made of scraps of tin pieced together. Here, gang violence and drugs are part of everyday life, and the government has been slow to provide new housing for families whose homes are in danger of collapsing in mudslides. Even so, posters and graffiti praising Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution," named after South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, permeate the neighborhood.

Yris Machado, 41, a widow, could only feed her four children one meal a day until a Chavez-backed program began supplying her with food staples. Now, she and her children eat three times a day. She is also beginning to benefit from a government program called "Mothers of the Barrio," which gives stipends to poor mothers with handicapped children. She will use the extra funds to help pay for anti-convulsive drugs and a new mattress for her daughter, who has Down syndrome. "Thanks to my president, now I can say that I'm going to buy a new mattress for my daughter and I'm going to give her a better way of living," Machado said.

Across town in the low-income area of El Valle, Gladys Garcia is thrilled with the Chavez government for a different reason. After noticing unusual lesions on her skin — and being denied treatment by a private hospital because she couldn't pay — Garcia is now getting attention at a free government-sponsored health care clinic. The program — called Barrio Adentro, Spanish for "inside the neighborhood" — brings tens of thousands of Cuban doctors to work in Venezuela in exchange for sending Venezuelan oil to Cuba under preferential terms. Since 2003, thousands of redbrick clinics have sprung up across the country, giving the poor 24-hour-a-day treatment closer to home.

It is voters like Garcia and Machado that the Rosales campaign is failing to win over. His main proposal is a debit card, called "Mi Negra," that would tap oil revenues to give anywhere from $300 to $1,000 a month in cash to Venezuelans in need. Chavez supporters dismiss the card, whose name refers to a term of endearment and to the color of oil, as an idea crafted to capture votes that won't assist them in the way that Chavez's programs do.

"That deceitful offer of money without working — that Negra card — it's shameless populism that can't be compared to the benefits we're currently receiving," said Jesus Sanchez, 62, who is an industrial mechanic. With the help of the government, Sanchez has started a small business and now has a contract to install public lighting at a Chavez-backed cooperative in western Caracas. "I feel like I have a second life," he said.

Of course, not everyone in the lower classes supports Chavez. One woman from the poor and dangerous Caracas neighborhood of Petare, who asked to remain anonymous, said Chavez's programs were just a way of buying votes. "Chavez has bought all the people in the barrios," she said. She also told her son to vote for the President, wary that opposing Chavez could bar him from access to government jobs and programs. Her fears are not unfounded — countless people who signed in favor of holding a referendum to oust Chavez in 2004 say they're blacklisted and can't get a government job.

Despite government assurances that elections will be clean, the opposition is still suspicious of electoral manipulation. Echoing U.S. claims that Chavez is turning authoritarian, his domestic opponents argue that a President who has eliminated most checks and balances to his power might not tolerate an unfavorable election result. The electoral council is tilted towards Chavez allies, while the government has pressured state employees to support the President and has used state television to promote him. But the only director on the council sympathetic to the opposition assures that voting will be secret and that any fraud can easily be detected. If irregularities do occur, observers from the Organization of American States, the European Union and the Carter Center will be watching.

Meanwhile, Chavez continues to campaign as much as against Washington as against Rosales. Banners around Caracas exhort voters to "Vote against the devil, vote against the empire." For his part, Rosales says he wants to restore respectful relations with the U.S., since it is the biggest customer of Venezuela's oil industry. Posters calling on Venezuelans to reject the U.S. government adorn the walls of a local meeting space set up near Tagagua for participants in the "Mothers of the Barrio" program. But Yamileth Zambrano, who helps manage that space, doesn't mention foreign policy when asked why she likes the President. Instead, she praises the revolution for funneling oil revenues to the people, which she says previous governments didn't do.

"Now oil is for all Venezuelans," she says. And that belief, widespread as it is in the barrios, ought to ensure Chavez a comfortable victory on Sunday.