December 16, 2007
The poor and indigenous residents of Venezuela -- once among Hugo Chávez's most ardent supporters -- are increasingly growing opposed to him and his socialist ideology.
When Hugo Chávez won Venezuela's 1998 presidential elections, Mílvida Alcázar thought there was hope in her life at last.
The daughter of a Warao indigenous man and resident of one of Caracas' poor barrios, she volunteered every time she could to support the man she considered the first candidate who favored the poor and indigenous.
''I always voted for Chávez because he always talked about helping the poor, and, since I'm poor, I saw a ray of hope,'' Alcázar said.
But these days Alcázar and many of her neighbors in the Mamera barrio of Caracas are saying they no longer support Chávez and are opposed to the socialist ideology he has tried to impose on Venezuela.
''We don't want a socialism that would take away our right to live free,'' Alcázar told El Nuevo Herald during a recent visit to Mamera.
In 2004, she worked long hours as a volunteer in the campaign to defeat a recall vote against Chávez. The president won the vote, and when her husband abandoned her and their seven children, she asked for help from her revolutionary brethren. The help never came.
''I felt I had been used and afterward nobody knew me,'' she said.
Alcázar is not alone. More of the Mamera's residents have shown their disappointment with Chávez's turn toward the radical left, especially his proposals for constitutional reforms defeated in a Dec. 2 referendum.
(Yet, some of those failed reforms may happen anyway. Late Thursday the Chávez-dominated legislature approved an annual planning document referring to a ''socialist model of production'' and a ''modification of the territorial structure of the country,'' language that leaves open structural changes.)
However, it's not only old supporters who switched to the opposition. Many Venezuelans who say they still support Chávez reject some of his policies.
''I am pro-Chávez,'' said Alfredo Sequera, 38, a Mamera resident who serves on a pro-Chávez militia. ``But being pro-Chávez doesn't mean that we have to agree with all of the reforms. There are many . . . that don't smell good.''
LOSING URBAN VOTES
Sequera said he was especially worried about the proposed constitutional reforms on the referendum that would have weakened private property rights and allowed Chávez to seek indefinite reelection.
Tallies from the vote showed Chávez lost an important part of the support he had in the Caracas metropolitan area, once a bastion of Chavismo, as well as in 13 other important cities in Venezuela.
Chávez still has an important measure of popular support -- his side won 25 percent of more than 16 million registered voters on Dec. 2 -- and still controls virtually all levels of political and economic power in the country.
But some analysts say the tallies show a surprising split between the rural and urban parts of the country.
''Chávez has been losing the support of the cities and has concentrated his forces in less urban areas,'' political analyst Carmen Beatriz Fernández said.
The reason, according to Fernández: Big cities have been experiencing increased food and other shortages as well as street crime, and residents are better informed. The provinces, on the other hand, have less crime and more food.
''An important segment of the voters believe the Chavista project goes against the wishes of the people'' said Oscar Schemel, of the polling firm Hinterlaces.
Residents of the barrios agree.
''The man has done good and bad things,'' said Alexander Peñaloza, 19, who works in a hardware store and calls himself a Chávez supporter. ``But we want a Venezuela that is free, where there are not rationing cards like in Cuba.''
Life's not easy in Mamera. There is no drinking water, nor drainage or medical services. A medical clinic run by Cubans has closed. People who live high on the hills have to walk down more than a hundred steps before they get to mass transportation.
Chávez's welfare programs have certainly made him popular in the barrios.
''He has good intentions with the lower classes. He has stood by all the mothers in the neighborhood,'' said Rosana Reyes, a housewife who uses her house as a government-aided soup kitchen that serves lunch to 188 children and senior citizens.
But she opposes allowing Chávez to seek unlimited reelection. ''Venezuelans are used to a new president every five or six years,'' she said.
Jesús Torrealba, leader of a social assistance project, said that since January Chávez no longer has ``the absolute and automatic adherence from the people of the lower-class sectors.''
''The lower-class sectors, including Chavistas, aren't showing unconditional adherence and I don't think they would ever do it again,'' he added.
''Chávez will need to find another people, because the people already started to search for a new government,'' said Douglas Bravo, a former leftist guerrilla who now heads the Third Way party. In Venezuela, ``the people . . . fall in love and they fall out of love. In both cases, they are radical.''
Some analysts say the disappointment among the president's supporters could worsen still if Chávez continues to push his reforms toward socialism.
''If you have a girlfriend who's angry because you made an indecent proposal,'' said pollster Luis Vicente León, ``the worst strategy is to try to conquer her heart by shouting under her balcony that, whether she wanted it or not, sooner or later, you will do what you want.''