CARACAS: Liliana Carias used to hope President Hugo Chavez would change her life. Not anymore. She’s been living for years in a dirt-floor shack without running water, and after voting for Chavez in the last three presidential polls, the single mother of four said she’s tired of waiting for help.
She was among thousands of people who cheered for the president’s rival recently in the serpentine streets of Caracas’ Petare slum, which used to be a bastion of support for Chavez. She held out a handwritten letter addressed to “My future President Henrique Capriles,” the opposition challenger, writing that her salary as a supermarket cashier was no longer enough to support her family and she was worried her landlord would evict them.
“We need change,” Carias said as the caravan paraded by. “I thought it would come with Chavez but I’m very disappointed. He promised us everything but nothing changed. I still don’t have running water, sewer or electricity.”
From single mothers to construction workers, some Chavez supporters have been turning away from the president to consider new leadership. They’ve become key to the Oct. 7 presidential vote and Capriles’ strategy.
Surveys don’t indicate exactly which “Chavistas” are becoming “Caprilistas,” but the group appears to include working-class and lower-middle-class Venezuelans. Polls also reveal weariness over a growing yet troubled economy, 18 percent inflation and one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Despite billions of dollars in government spending on social programs, solutions to problems such as the country’s severe housing shortage have been elusive. Slums have grown during Chavez’s presidency, and the government’s construction of new housing projects hasn’t kept up with the legions of poor people like Carias who have applied for apartments and ended up waiting for years.
Now Chavez is spending heavily building apartments and paying out more benefits to poor families. But some in the working class still complain that they’re being bypassed and have lost faith in the government’s promises.
Chavez held a 10-point lead over Capriles in a survey released this week by the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. But the 49 percent who said they intend to vote for Chavez was dramatically lower than the 63 percent who re-elected him in 2006. The latest poll said 11 percent of those interviewed didn’t reveal a preference.
Analysts say a strong turnout by disenchanted ex-Chavistas could help tip the balance in favor of the challenger.
“The votes of those who changed sides are key in this race because without them, it would be impossible for Capriles to win,” said Datanalisis’ president Luis Vicente Leon.
Chavez first won the presidency in 1998 with promises to sweep away corrupt, entrenched political parties and help the poor in this oil-rich country.
That message helped the soldier-turned-politician win political dominance throughout the 2000s as the economy boomed along with oil earnings. Chavez has remained popular in part thanks to social programs including state-run grocery stores, medical clinics staffed by Cuban doctors and cash benefits for poor families.
Government figures show the number of Venezuelans living in poverty decreased most markedly between 2004 and 2007, and then in the following years budged little, giving the opposition room to score some election victories. In the 2010 congressional elections, for instance, the government held on to a majority of seats but the popular vote was almost evenly split between the pro- and anti-Chavez camps.
Chavez’s popularity slipped as the economy stalled, although it still hovered around 50 percent or higher during much of the past year. In that time, he’s waged a protracted fight against cancer and had to square off against the opposition’s first ever unity candidate.
“It’s clear he’s not the same Chavez as he was in 2006,” Leon said. “His ratings in terms of performance and public approval have changed. If [Capriles] has a chance, it’s because of that. There’s a migration of votes. The question is: Is it enough?” Chavez, for one, has called an opposition victory impossible, saying he’ll win by a “knockout” and even put on boxing gloves at one point to emphasize his prediction. At one news conference, he laughed when asked about his loyalists defecting.
“For those who say there’s a hidden vote, or that Chavistas will vote against Chavez, it’s something like saying there are Martians on the sun,” Chavez quipped.
Chavez has also been trying to make inroads among traditional middle-class opposition supporters. On a recent evening a small crowd of Chavistas demonstrated on a corner in an affluent Caracas neighborhood, holding banners announcing “The Middle Class with Chavez.”
The impression has nonetheless grown that the president has become too enamored of his own global legacy while neglecting basic needs at home such as infrastructure and public safety. Chavez’s election manifesto of proposals for his next six-year term trumpets abstract ideas such as “preserving life on the planet and helping to save mankind,” a “new international geopolitics” and “a continuation of the 21st century socialism.”
Capriles has responded with ridicule, recently telling supporters: “Saving humankind! ... Where’s the plan for health? Where’s the plan for education, for jobs?”
Capriles’ campaign has also been running newspaper ads detailing “14 years of unfulfilled promises,” including pledges by Chavez to construct a bridge across the country’s biggest lake, build more hospitals and revolutionize a small farming sector to make the country self-sufficient in food. Another opposition ad features side-by-side photos of Venezuela’s slums with homes that Chavez purportedly gave away in the Dominican Republic, with the slogan, “It’s time to put Venezuela first.”
It’s a message that resonates in places such as Petare, one of the biggest slums in Latin America, where homicides and the lack of basic public works make life a daily struggle. In 2008, an opposition candidate beat out a close Chavez aide to become district mayor. Since then it’s been a key electoral battleground in Caracas.
During Capriles’ weekend demonstration, many wore baseball caps emblazoned with the yellow, red and blue of the Venezuelan flag, just like the one their candidate has worn on the campaign trail. The crowd paraded past small groups of Chavez supporters in red shirts who came out of their homes shouting “Chavez won’t leave!” and other slogans. Several years ago, more of them would have been challenging the march.
“I voted for him but I regret it,” said Rosina Dambrosio, a homemaker in Petare. “He was going to modernize Venezuela and fight crime. And he also spoke so beautifully. I guess we trusted him too much. He still speaks nicely, but I don’t believe him anymore.”
She and her neighbor Zoraida Berniquez said it was not safe to walk the neighborhood at night. Berniquez recently had to dive for cover during a walk when she heard gunfire.
Former Chavez supporters pile on the disappointments: The president has concentrated too much power and has governed undemocratically. He has divided the country along pro- and anti-Chavez lines.
“This is not the country that I wanted for my grandchildren,” said Osiris Rojas, a 56-year-old secretary, while listening to Capriles at a rally. “Why so much hate if we’re all Venezuelans? I feel cheated.”