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Building Loyalty and a Legacy

As Recall Vote Nears, Chavez Reaps Support From Social Programs

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2004; Page A14

CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug. 11 -- The revolution arrived at Luis Ruiz's home bearing pots and pans. It brought a refrigerator and a stove and a sink, bags of pasta and plump frozen chickens -- a bonanza for a man living in a Caracas shantytown.

The goods arrived last month thanks to President Hugo Chavez's program to create "people's kitchens" in slums across Venezuela. For Ruiz, 41, a part-time plumber who cooks the free food for his neighbors, it was the latest sign of Chavez's promised revolution. Already, the government had provided Ruiz's hillside shantytown with a health clinic and a market selling subsidized food.

Luis Ruiz, a supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, recently opened a "people's kitchen" at his home in a Caracas slum, using government-supplied utensils and food. (Mary Beth Sheridan -- The Washington Post)

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"Chavez has put himself on the side of the people," Ruiz declared recently, as he doled out an afternoon snack of oatmeal and fruit salad to neighbors. "With him, we have hope."

The social programs in Ruiz's neighborhood help explain why Chavez holds the lead in many public opinion polls as he heads into a recall vote Sunday. Pollsters say the tally might be close. To win, the autocratic former army officer needs the support of the millions of people he says fervently back his revolution.

Chavez clearly is less popular than he was when he swept to power in a 1998 election, promising a change from a two-party system tarnished by corruption. Opponents charge he has weakened democratic institutions, presided over a ruinous economic decline and tried to establish an authoritarian government in the style of Fidel Castro's Cuba.

But thanks to social spending based on rising oil revenue, and his appeals to the country's increasingly activist poor, Chavez has been able to survive constant political turbulence.

To visit the country today is to experience the Cold War anew. Posters of Che Guevara hang outside the national oil company, once a bastion of white-collar professionalism. Walls throughout Caracas, the capital, are plastered with anti-imperialist slogans ("The Country Will Not Be Sold!"). The opposition warns that Cuban-style communism is around the corner for Venezuela, a major oil supplier to the United States.

Many analysts say Chavez's anti-poverty programs bear more resemblance to traditional Venezuelan populism than to anything revolutionary. The transformation wrought by Chavez may ultimately be one of expectations -- of giving millions of poor people a sense of political power and entitlement. People like Ruiz have adopted the language of class warfare. And they are not going away.

"The country we have now is profoundly different from before," said Humberto Calderon, a former oil executive who is active with the opposition coalition. Even if the opposition replaces Chavez, he said, his legacy will be powerful.

"If we don't reach an understanding with 'Chavismo,' we can't govern," Calderon said.

The most vivid signs of the changes brought by Chavez are in the less affluent neighborhoods. There are now free Internet cafes, medical clinics run by Cuban doctors, literacy programs and new universities. Chavez has tapped the state-run oil company -- the mainstay of the economy -- to pay for many of the activities.

Most of these programs began only in the past year or so, as oil prices spiked. Independent analysts say the programs, which are run outside the traditional controls of the legislature and government ministries, appear to involve little planning and are ripe for corruption. They might not be sustainable if the price of oil drops and are clearly being used to promote the president, the analysts say.

"Chavez realized what all politicians realize in Latin America -- he needed to buy off people with public spending," said Luis Vicente Leon, director of Datanalisis, a polling firm.

The programs have been so popular that the opposition has had to back off its criticism of them, and now promises to improve them if Chavez is ousted. According to Datanalisis, nearly four in 10 people recently polled said they had shopped at subsidized food markets.

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