Divided Venezuela set for key poll

Are Hugo Chavez’s popular social programmes under threat from the opposition and falling oil prices?

Chavez has huge support in the Caracas’s  ‘barrio’ districts [AFP]

Many Venezuelans are divided ahead of a referendum on political term limits, but the poverty-stricken Caracas district of Petare appears to have already made its choice – yes to Hugo Chavez.

The Venezuelan president, who is attempting to change the constitution so he can run for the post again in 2012, has built his popularity on the social programmes that have brought education, healthcare and subsidised food to some of the poorest parts of the country.

“It’s a revolution, 100 per cent,” says Pablo Arteaga, a 48-year-old community activist in the district, of the changes implemented in the area during 10 years of Chavez rule.

Petare, a huge slum or “barrio” that climbs up a steep hillside on the eastern edge of Caracas, is believed to be one of the largest such communities in Latin America, with reports of its population ranging from 600,000 to one million.

Students at the forefront of both
the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns

Ramshackle houses built haphazardly on top of each other spiral up into the low-hanging clouds that cover the city.

The further up you live, residents say, the further you are away from essential services such as running water.

Arteaga works with other “Chavistas” in Petare to help the local community access state funds to build some of these programmes.

He says locals suggest projects that are decided on by the community by a vote with the funding picked up by the government – the latest being a two-way radio system that allows residents to keep in touch.

The community centre where he is based also acts as a clinic, with medical advice provided by one of the thousands of doctors sent to Venezuela from Cuba by former president Fidel Castro, Chavez’s strongest political ally.

“Prior to Chavez there was no direct participation from communities like Petare, now the government comes here to meet us, whereas in the past we had to go them,” Arteaga adds.

And for many here, the referendum is about protecting these gains against a possible future opposition government.

Mercedes Espinoda, a grandmother who has lived in Petare for 53 years says: “We are convinced that if the opposition gets into power then all this will disappear. Everything will be privatised and we will have no more medical care.”

Opposition gains

But despite the adoration from activists, the future of the Chavez “Bolivarian revolution” remains uncertain, even in Petare.

Mercedes Espinoda has lived
in Petare for 53 years

The opposition recently won control of Sucre municipality which includes Petare, amid reported accusations of mismanagement, as well as making other key gains in local elections.

The “no” campaign says Chavez has become autocratic and that no politician should be allowed to remain in office indefinitely.

And on the other side of Caracas in the district of Las Palmas, opposition students gathering on Saturday to make plans for the referendum deny they want to make cuts in the popular programmes.

Rafael Olavarria, a student at the Central University of Venezuela, denies that a no victory could signal cuts to social programmes that have proved so popular with the poor.

“We recognise the things, the good things, Chavez has done and we don’t want those things to stop. We want them to get better,” he said.


The opposition also say that the “yes” campaign has misused its massive power, allowing the use of state resources to promote its cause.

In depth

Q&A: Chavez referendum

Profile: Hugo Chavez

Join the debate on Venezuela’s referendum

Video: Venezuelans to vote on Chavez

Divided Venezuela set for key poll

Students battle over Venezuela vote

Huge posters of Chavez and baseball stars calling for a “yes” vote have been put up across Caracas, and Chavez supporters have launched an aggressive television advertising campaign.

“The government has flexed its financial and logistical advantage more than in any previous election,” says Juan Cristobal on the Caracas Chronicles opposition web blog.

“In a way, Chavez is right – this isn’t an election, it’s a battle within a war. We’re not fighting a party or an ideology – we’re fighting a state.”

But one place that the oppositon appear to be making ground is online, where the government has placed some adverts but not reached out to debate the referendum.

Two opposition pages on the popular social networking site Facebook have more than 100,000 members each (Hugo Chavez’s official page has almost 30,000).

And activists have also set up a special election page on the micro-blogging site Twitter to encourage people to report instances of irregularities at polling stations on the day itself.

Global downturn

But others have pointed to bigger problems for Chavez and social programmes than his political enemies at home.

Petare is believed to be one of the largest such communities in Latin America

The Venezuelan economy has suffered a slowdown amid a global downturn and the price of oil, which accounts for 94 per cent of the country’s exports, has dropped dramatically.

However, the government says it is confident it can weather any storm, last week announcing $5bn in loans to businesses, community councils (like those in Petare) and co-operatives to finance farm, infrastructure, housing and other projects.

Eva Gollinger, a pro-Chavez lawyer and analyst, says it is unlikely to have much long term impact.

“When Chavez won office oil was at about 7 dollars a barrel and it’s because of Venezuela’s leadership in Opec that it was brought up to the mid-20’s.

“It’s really just in recent years that it’s gone over in price. Chavez has made it very clear that the social programmes will not be cut.”

That message will go down well in Petare where the hopes of the residents are very much dependent on the government.

“I believe in the revolution,” says Mercedes Espinoda, the grandmother and Chavista in Petare.

“It’s in my heart.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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