Since 1999, Venezuela's self-avowed socialist president has arranged for thousands of Cuban doctors to tend to his country's neediest, launched a campaign to stamp out illiteracy, sought to boost access to higher education, and promised new homes for the poor. Yet enormous poverty remains and by some measures has actually grown worse under President Hugo Chavez, despite record oil revenues that have financed an unprecedented boom in government expenditures.
In Caracas' sprawling "January 23" neighborhood, a profusion of ramshackle tenements surrounds dilapidated apartment buildings. Once a hotbed of social discontent and a frequent target of repression by Venezuelan authorities, the neighborhood now stands as a budding showcase for President Chavez' programs for the poor.
Yorlin Mais cradles his infant son, Jose, who has a fever, at one of several free clinics operated by Cuban doctors in the neighborhood. He says now, for the first time ever, he has access to health care.
"If you go to a hospital, they demand payment and they have nothing to give you," he says. "Here, they treat you promptly and provide medication. They [the doctors] are close to the community and the care is good."
Up a hillside, Augusta Mendez beams with pride. At age 60, this mother of 5 and grandmother of 11 is learning to read under a new literacy program.
The person who does not know how to read is blind," she says. "But the person who reads can deal with situations, whatever comes up."
Ms. Mendez says there is one person she would like to thank.
"Our president," she says. "All these programs started under Chavez. Previous governments did nothing."
But not everyone is cheering. On the other side of town, Dr. Gustavo Villasmil, a medical advisor to Caracas' municipal government, says Cuban doctors have never had to demonstrate their qualifications to practice medicine, nor their competence to do so. He accuses President Chavez of hijacking Venezuela's public health system for political purposes.
"The presence of Cuban medical missions has one clear objective: to use medical attention to help construct a Venezuelan political mechanism for social control," he says. "To know who you are, what you do, who you are married to, where you work and what you think of the government."
Not so, according to President Chavez, who in a recent appearance on state-run television insisted he only wants to provide for his citizens' basic needs.
"The right to have food: when have you ever seen international institutions or human rights groups dominated by capitalism advocate for the right to be fed? The right to health, to education," he said. "[These rights are seen] least of all under the imperialist system."
Even Mr. Chavez' critics admit that the president has focused on Venezuela's staggering poverty like no other leader in the country's history, and that the effort may be beginning to bear fruit.
But economist Orlando Ochoa says any gains have been minuscule relative to enormous public expenditures, and are likely unsustainable.
"When President Chavez came to power in 1999, the economy fell and poverty increased," he says. "From 2000 to 2004, poverty increased further. Now the statistics are showing an improvement, thanks to the spending of oil revenue. But if the Venezuelan economy lacks a stable base, this current reduction in poverty will be temporary."
Analysts say President Chavez has made sweeping promises to the poor, and that impatience is beginning to show.
"The [government's] capacity to meet the expectations is very low," says Public opinion pollster Alfredo Keller. "For example, in housing, the government has only completed 15,000 homes this year. But the demand for homes stands at six million. And last year everyone dreamed of getting their new home. When we have asked about President Chavez in polls, what is most criticized, and criticized considerably, is that he speaks a lot but does very little."
But the government makes no apologies for an ambitious agenda. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel says considerable progress has been made in combating illiteracy and other social ills, but that patience is required.
"Poverty cannot be overcome overnight. It is a slow process," he says. "We have suffered decades of poverty and neglect, and you cannot expect that to be erased in five or six years, especially when there have been crises to deal with, like the 2002 national oil strike."
Perhaps recognizing the need for time, President Chavez has said he would like to stay in power until the year 2030 to oversee his nation's transformation to socialism. Voters will have their say in presidential elections next year.