Venezuela's Chavez Wins Hearts Among the Poor

By Michelle García
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The shanties came tumbling down, wiping out the families who had built their homes on the hill. Carlos Henriquez, then a young boy, vividly remembers the images of the deadly mudslides and the feeling that the government had failed to protect the poor.

In the years that followed, there were more examples of official indifference, said Henriquez, now 22, who has a slight build and a boyish face. Young men fell behind in school, became apathetic and entered shadowy careers on the street. And he felt the government did not seem to care.

But recently, under what President Hugo Chavez calls his "Bolivarian Revolution," named for the 19th-century independence leader Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan government has offered high school and university educations to adults left behind.

"Now those neighborhoods are stabilizing. This revolution is putting some enthusiasm in the people," said Henriquez, the son of an artist, who peddles revolutionary posters on the sidewalks of the capital. "Before, they didn't have any hope."

He plans to follow in his brother's footsteps and attend Mision Ribas, a high school for adults. "People are looking for ways to advance and keep going," he said while standing near his poster display. "The people were waiting for that, and it has arrived."

Chavez, whose taste for revolutionary red, populist ideology and fiery rhetoric has made him a hero in this oil-rich country, governs with the self-proclaimed mandate of realizing Bolivar's dream, which included uniting numerous countries of Latin America. For decades, a tiny political and economic elite directed the country and reaped its oil wealth. But that has changed under Chavez, and his supporters say Venezuela now belongs to them.

On the world stage, Chavez often lobs barbs at President Bush, whom he has nicknamed "Mister Danger." Chavez, first elected in 1998, survived a 2002 coup that was at least tacitly supported by the United States, and a referendum to recall him in 2004. Critics accuse him of consolidating power, punishing opponents and instigating confrontations with the U.S. government.

But his domestic loyalists are fervent and number in the millions. The Chavistas , as his supporters are known, say that for the first time in the country's 47-year shaky attempt at democracy, they have a president who promotes an inclusive society and pride in the country's culture and history.

A Chavez-inspired moment occurred last week when indigenous artisans from the Amazon region and the border with Guyana gathered in a white tent after traveling here to sell their wares at the World Social Forum, a summit for leftist activists.

The palm weavers and jewelry makers said it was a rare opportunity to showcase their native culture. But the forum organizers neglected to build a vendors' stall, and the artisans were left idle.

"Every time we come to Caracas, it's difficult to find a place to sell," said Danilo Garzea, 23, of the Piaroa tribe, from the area near the border with Colombia. After hours of stewing with indignation, the group devised a plan.

"A brilliant idea occurred to us -- to ask for a market here in the city so this doesn't keep happening," said Garzea, who wears his black hair short and spiky and displays his handcrafted jewelry tied around his arm.

Before Chavez took office, Garzea and others said, Indians had no legal protections from discrimination and no political voice. In society, they were relegated to an ornamental role. The president, who embraces his Indian ancestry, bestowed native people with ancestral land, full citizenship rights, recognition and protection under the national constitution.

"With Chavez we have opened our eyes," Garzea said the next day, standing under the red canopy of the new vendors' stall. "Before, to think, to explore, to imagine, wasn't possible. Now, we can."

After Chavez won the referendum in 2004, opposition parties fell into disarray due to infighting. The rumblings of criticism are heard largely through the mainstream media, which aggressively cover Chavez's missteps, real or perceived.

One of the most egregious misuses of power, say his critics, is la lista , the list of voters on the petition that demanded a referendum. The list was posted on the Web sites of an opposition group and a pro-Chavez member of the National Assembly. Chavez's critics say the administration had been using the list to weed out opponents from government jobs and programs.

Jose Antonio Montenegro, a cabdriver, blamed the list for the demise of his construction company. Montenegro said that several months after he signed the petition, his application for a government loan was rejected when his name popped up on the list.

"Do you know how many lawyers are driving taxis?" he said, as melancholy U.S. ballads played over his car stereo. "Professionals don't have a future because they signed against Chavez."

Calixto Ortega, a member of Chavez's political party and the head of a parliamentary committee on domestic security, said the party does not condone the use of the list, adding that political discrimination violates the national constitution. But he said party leaders had consulted the list at times.

"When there was a situation in which the state was in danger, you had to take precautions," Ortega said. "You didn't know if it was over, so it was important for stability to know what people were thinking."

Still, in many parts of Caracas the enthusiasm for the Bolivarian revolution and its charismatic leader is so great that men and women are moved to cry. Without a hint of exaggeration, Chavistas punctuate their pledges of loyalty with shouts of "Revolution or death!"

In 2002, Escarlett Castro, a single mother of three and a supervisor for a landscaping company, made good on that promise. Faint scars are still visible on Castro's back. That's where a policeman's bullet grazed her after the coup attempt in 2002, as Castro joined protesters outside Miraflores, the presidential palace, to demand Chavez's return.

"We wanted to get to Miraflores, and we weren't going to leave until the president returned," she said, her voice choking, as she climbed through her densely packed neighborhood, pressed into the side of a hill, to reach her humble house with one small window. "Chavez is the man we have waited for all this time."

"We triumphed," said Castro, who has long black hair and wears bright red lipstick. "They have to take into consideration that the truth always, always wins, especially when it's the humble people who have the truth."

Some of Chavez's supporters stress the distinction between the desire of poor and working Venezuelans to determine their future and the will of its leader. Geomar Hernandez, 26, said he applauds Chavez but bristles at the name Chavista.

"I'm not a Chavista, I'm a Venezuelan," said Hernandez, a university student. "We have to believe in a nation. The leaders are circumstantial; their positions change."

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