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.
"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.
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."
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."