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Venezuela Torn by Social Divisions


In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is back in control of the government and expressing a willingness to discuss differences with his opponents. But, the deep division between the nation's rich minority and its poor majority's bodes ill for the future.

The depth of support for President Chavez can best be seen along Venezuela's Caribbean coast, within less than an hour's drive from Caracas. Parts of this area look like a ghost town. There are grotesque ruins of buildings and houses and piles of huge boulders where streets used to be. This area was devastated by a landslide caused by heavy rains in December 1999.

President Chavez promised relief for the people who lost homes here and he had the support of international donations to restore the area. But it is evident that there has been little or no reconstruction. The United States sent two Navy ships from a base in Puerto Rico with heavy equipment and special teams to rebuild the road, but President Chavez refused the help, the ships turned back and the road remains as it was.

Yet most of the common people who live in this area strongly back President Chavez. Eduardo, a port worker who voted for Mr. Chavez, but is critical of some of his policies, says people here do not blame the president for the lack of recovery.

"People blame the state governor more than the president," Eduardo says. "They still identify strongly with Chavez because he has made frequent trips here to talk with the people in poor barrios [neighborhoods] and that, even though many of them see that little reconstruction has been done, they believe Mr. Chavez is still working on their behalf."

The loyalty many of this nation's poorest people have for Hugo Chavez is not always easy to understand. It is not based on what he has done for them, but what he represents for them. For one thing, he looks more like them than have past presidents. He, like most Venezuelans, is dark-skinned and of mixed blood. Mr. Chavez also provides a channel for resentments that have built up through decades of corrupt governments run by lighter-skinned, upper class figures who rarely paid attention to the poor.

Mr. Chavez has given himself a solid political base by making the poor his primary focus. The poor represent up to 80 percent of the nation's 24 million people and because of Mr. Chavez, a large percentage of them now go to the polls. Many middle class opponents of the Chavez government admit that they did not bother to vote when he first appeared on the scene. The middle-class remains small and is shrinking. Thousands of educated Venezuelans have left the country since Mr. Chavez took office, seeking opportunity elsewhere. Meanwhile, poverty is a growth industry. Each year 300,000 people enter the workforce and there is full-time employment for only about 12 percent of them.

Economic and political analysts see a disaster brewing in Venezuela unless something changes. The recent conciliatory talk by President Chavez could be the beginning and at least some people are hopeful that a national dialogue will reduce tensions. But it is likely that the wealthier and better-educated Venezuelans who have bitterly opposed Mr. Chavez in recent months will remain obsessed with ending his rule. What they know now, however, is that it is far easier to remove the president from office than it is to bridge the gap between the two societies that exist side by side in this troubled country.

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