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Social Programs at Root of Chavez' Popularity

  • Simon Marks

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is at odds with U.S. President George W. Bush, straining relations between their two countries. But opinion polls show Mr. Chavez has the support of most Venezuelans. It is backing he has received in large part because of his government's social programs. Simon Marks visited a Caracas slum recently to see how these programs are working and has this report.

If you want to see why 70 percent of Venezuelans are happy with President Hugo Chavez, visit a barrio like La Vega. Barrio means neighborhood in Spanish, but La Vega is a city -- a vast slum that snakes around the hills that surround Caracas. An estimated 800,000 people live here.

President Chavez is pouring money into La Vega -- operating Mercal, a network of government-owned stores that sells staples like flour, powdered milk and household cleaners at highly subsidized prices.

Other things Mr. Chavez has brought to La Vega include a clinic. It's one of 8,500 in Venezuela.

In return for shipments of Venezuelan oil, Fidel Castro has sent about 20,000 Cuban doctors, nurses and dentists to provide basic health care to Venezuelans, including mothers and mothers to be.

One woman came to get contraceptive pills and have her sick mother looked at. She said, "IIf you didn't have money to go the hospital, you just stayed sick. I also know people who died. So this has been a really huge benefit for all of us."

We were not allowed to film any of the Cubans. Their presence is controversial. Mr. Chavez' opponents say they are agents of Fidel Castro's communist government, imported to help turn Venezuela into a Cuba-like dictatorship.

Criticism like that doesn't worry the people in La Vega.

One critics says, "It seems to me that the Cuban doctors have been very helpful because they've forced doctors here to realize that if someone comes here from another country and gives us that level of affection and love, why can't doctors from Venezuela come and support us."

But there is a huge amount that still needs to be done in La Vega and barrios like it around Caracas and other cities.

About a kilometer away from the showcase grocery store and clinic, an open sewer runs down the hillside, absorbing the waste of dozens of families living beside it.

Zoraly Albarado is angry nothing has been done about this and wants answers. Just 21, and already a widow, she is the sole breadwinner for her two sons, her mother, and teenaged brother. They share a knocked-together house. The sewage runs directly below their only bedroom.

Albarado worries about the family's safety as well. "The insecurity and the sewage problem. We need better stability for our kids. When I worry about my kids' future, I think a lot of people have the same problem."

As if on cue, a gunfight breaks out near a group of houses across the ravine. High crime has made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in South America.

Community activists, like Felix Caraballo, don't blame Mr. Chavez for the open sewers or the crime, and are willing to give him time but not a blank check. "Chavez is someone who has given us a lot of response to our needs," he says. "And we have high hopes in him and the way in which he is governing and that he's staying on the [right] path. But if he does get off the path he is going to find a strong people. The same ones who gave him power will take it away."

December's election results show a large majority of Venezuelans seem to be happy with Mr. Chavez.

Even critics, such as newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff, say the leftist president has struck a chord with the under-privileged majority. "He has been able to reach out to the most humble parts of society because in the 20 years before he came to power, the major political parties in Venezuela left a vacuum through their electoral machines. And the brutal impoverishment of the majority of the population was not an issue for the major political parties."

Venezuela's opposition warns that Mr. Chavez and his policies are turning the country into a communist state. But with the opposition sidelined after it boycotted the last parliamentary elections, the economy growing at 10 percent a year, and high oil prices underwriting the popular social programs in the barrios, only a major mis-step could ruin Hugo Chavez' popularity.

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