Caracas, Venezuela – Wearing her cap and gown while surrounded by friends and neighbours in this gritty hillside slum on the outskirts of Caracas, Amy Prieto is the first person from her family to graduate from university.
“In the past, universities were out of bounds for people like me,” Prieto, 25, told Al Jazeera as her mother smiled proudly. “Now they are open.” She got a degree in civil and military studies from the newly created National Experimental University of the Armed Forces (UNEFA), and plans to continue with post-graduate training.
Residents of slums or “barrios”, including San Agustin del Sur, form a key base of support for populist president Hugo Chavez. An election on Sunday will decide whether he stays in power for another six years.
A former army officer from an impoverished rural family, Chavez is often seen by residents here as the embodiment of their own struggles and hopes.
“We are all Chavistas,” Victor Gomez shouted from the back of a pick-up truck moving garbage out of the area when he realised a journalist was in town.
An experienced campaigner, Chavez relishes in the emotional connection with the poor, carefully cultivating his image as a man of the people, kissing babies and hugging teary-eyed supporters at rallies across the country.
Opposition reaches out
During this campaign, for the first time in 14 years, the opposition, led by aristocratic lawyer Henrique Capriles, has doggedly tried to convince people living in barrios that their needs will be taken care of by a new government.
|Amy Prieto was the first member of her family to go to university and she credits the Chavez government for helping her [Christopher Arsenault/Al Jazeera]|
Unlike in the past, when the opposition was plagued by divisions and focussed on appealing to its middle-class base, Capriles has campaigned hard in poor areas, promising a better future and more responsible government.
“I come here to offer you universities, schools, opportunities and jobs. Not rifles,” the 40-year-old former state governor told a rally earlier this month in reference to crime problems plaguing the country.
Some Venezuelans feel Chavez hasn’t delivered during his time in office, as insecurity and inflation have skyrocketed, despite unprecedented oil revenues filling the national treasury.
“Chavez already had his chance,” Maria Elena Sierra, an opposition supporter who works in a hospital, said of the 58-year-old leader who has governed since 1998. “It’s time for someone new.”
But as pictures of the smiling socialist with the slogan “Chavez is the heart of the nation” hang from barred windows, it seems that most residents of San Agustin del Sur continue to back the incumbent.
A newly built cable car gives barrio residents an easy way out of the community and into the city, where they can find work or go to school. In the past, walking down the mountain would take an hour and a half.
“This is what the opposition doesn’t understand,” said one resident as he sauntered off the cable car past newly constructed pipes bringing fresh water to local homes. “Imagine having to walk an hour and a half before going to your job on a construction site. You are exhausted before you even get to work.”
On the hillside, children dart through narrow allies as shirtless young men sit on steps drinking beer and chatting. Community organisers wearing the red t-shirts of the Chavez camp pass out election flyers as trucks re-supply small corner shops with soda pop and vegetables.
Infrastructure has greatly improved in the area, residents say, and many believe previous governments neglected them.
“The government has installed 600 telephone lines,” Oscar Cristancho, a community activist, told Al Jazeera. “There will be internet in the community and computers for the students.” A government programme known as “one lap-top per child”, developed in 2009, aims to distribute 3 million computers by the end of this year.
But not everyone here supports the president, and 63-year-old carpenter Augustin Reyes isn’t shy about his anti-government views. “I’m a nationalist, not a communist,” he told Al Jazeera. “The government is giving away oil money when they should be using it at home. We are swimming in backwardness.”
“Because of the revolution, I was able to finish high school. Now I am studying law. Imagine – at my age!”
– Maria Zambrano, 66
Chavista neighbours joke with Reyes as he walks home after getting off the cable car. In some poor communities, opposition supporters are harassed by Chavistas, but Reyes has lived in Augustin del Sur all his life and he doesn’t seem like the kind of man to be trifled with.
“They don’t bother me,” he said of Chavistas. “In fact, I play jokes on them. They all used to back previous governments and now they are Chavistas. They change sides the way I change shirts.”
Some residents have certainly picked a side, regularly meeting in a community hall to discuss the finer points of socialism and Venezuela’s future. These “Bolivarian Circles” are considered a vanguard of the government’s presence in these areas.
On a Tuesday night after work, half a dozen older residents sit on battered chairs discussing issues ranging from the conflict in Syria to who should fix the local basketball court.
“In the past, a woman of my age would be expected to be baking cookies at home,” Bolivarian Circle member Maria Zambrano, 66, told Al Jazeera. “Because of the revolution, I was able to finish high school. Now I am studying law. Imagine – at my age!”
Along with providing courses and hosting discussion groups on history and politics, the Bolivarian Circle works with the local community council to create specific projects in the area. Elected council members decide on things the barrio needs – such as repairs to buildings, a new health clinic, or better sports facilities.
This sort of grassroots development did not happen under previous regimes, residents said.
Once they choose a project, the council can approach various government bodies, including the Caracas Fund, with a budget plan. Then local people administer the construction. “Anyone can go to the worksite to make sure the money is being spent properly and things are completed on time,” Alba Castro, a community council member, said.
Buying the poor
Arlán Narváez-Vaz, a professor of economics at the Central University of Venezuela, believes the government is trying to buy poor people with their own oil money.
“Poverty has been reduced because we have created a welfare state where people are dependent on the government,” Narváez-Vaz told Al Jazeera. “If you give crutches to lame people, you cannot claim to have cured them.”
The professor believes new government-run “Bolivarian Universities” – including the military school where Amy Prieto studied – are just degree mills. “You can’t fail your students at a Bolivarian school, or else you are considered a bad teacher,” he said. “The diplomas are not worth the paper they are printed on.”
For many, including Prieto, new opportunities and social mobility presented during the Chavez years mean they are unlikely to back the opposition, even if they’re frustrated with the current state of affairs.
More important than new universities, cable cars or water pipes, government supporters in the barrio say the poor feel a new sense of self-worth – and power.
“In the past, many poor people wouldn’t look people in their eyes,” Clara Platt, a community member and Chavez supporter told Al Jazeera. “Now, they might still be poor but they are more educated and they will defend their rights.”
Follow Christopher Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris