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Building Loyalty and a Legacy

Jorge Bachur makes rolls, not revolution. But the 35-year-old baker said he was deeply impressed with the government-subsidized market in his poor Caracas neighborhood, where he buys bags of cheap flour decorated with sayings from a new constitution promoted by Chavez.

"He's the only president who has done something here," he said, gesturing to the dilapidated commercial strip in his neighborhood, where battered buses plowed past knots of unemployed men. "The other presidents were kind of corrupt."

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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But the lives of many poor Venezuelans have worsened under Chavez. Whipsawed by recession, a short-lived coup and a two-month general strike that nearly shut down the country's oil production, the economy has contracted, with national per-capita income declining by about one-quarter from 1998 to 2003, before starting to grow this year. Thousands of companies have shut their doors, and the value of the currency, the bolivar, has plummeted.

The near-collapse of the economy has cost Chavez many supporters. But the president's support may rest less on his economic record than his communication skills and professed identification with the poor. He has convinced many that the country's problems are caused by what he has called the "rancid oligarchy," business leaders who were closely linked to discredited governments of the past.

For the poor, "there's an emotional connection with Chavez. He knows how to touch certain fibers that have to do with the divisions in society, social resentment," said Elias Santana, an opposition activist who works with nongovernmental groups.

Some analysts say Chavez has tapped into a powerful uneasiness that grew as the economy repeatedly stalled during the 1980s and 1990s because of mismanagement, fluctuating oil prices and the weak, uncompetitive nature of the non-petroleum economy. Many poor felt marginalized by the government and began to organize politically and demonstrate regularly.

"They feel like they now rule. They feel like this is their government," said Ana Maria Sanjuan, a social psychologist at the Central University of Venezuela.

People in the middle class, meanwhile, worry that the political rhetoric adopted by the poor could explode into violence.

"The president has inspired a revolution -- but more than that, a civil war," said Margarita Trujillo, 51, an unemployed teacher, who was sipping an espresso at a cafe in a middle-class neighborhood in eastern Caracas. The president's followers, she said, "think that a revolution is to come to the east, where the better-off people live, and kill everyone."

Such a scenario is unlikely, but both sides see the referendum as more than just a vote. Chavez opponents say democracy is at stake. His supporters say it is a defining moment for the revolution.

If Chavez loses, said Ruiz, the cook at the people's kitchen, "there will be violence."

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