Chavez's fate lies in Venezuela's divided barrios
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The last time he ran for re-election, President Hugo Chavez won comfortably in Petare, one of Latin America's biggest slums with nearly half a million people.
This time around, as Venezuelans vote Sunday, he may not.
Challenger Henrique Capriles — known as "El Flaco," or "Skinny" — has built a surprisingly large following in what was once clear Chavez territory across Venezuela. The fervent support for the president among the working poor he's graced with state largesse has eroded.
"'El Flaco' owns the street!," Maria Hernandez, 62, shouts from her pane-less window as three foreign journalists climb steps through a warren of red brick homes in a 1,500-family slice of Petare known as Jose Felix Ribas.
The barrio, planted on a steep hillside, is run by a community council of Chavez loyalists who provide special care for the handicapped, register the elderly for pensions and parcel out government handouts, from free food for the needy to subsidies for home improvements.
But such services, delivered through what the government calls "missions," long ago stopped translating into solid allegiance for Chavez, who is seeking a third six-year-term.
The neighborhood is divided, owing in some degree to mismanagement by pro-Chavez mayors and governors who were voted out of office in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
The replacement governor was Capriles, who tried to create parallel organizations to rival the Chavista communal councils but largely failed because the central government, master of Venezuela's oil riches, controlled far more funds.
Farther up the hillside, orange flags of one of the parties backing the 40-year-old opposition candidate fly from a second-floor window of Ivana Villamizar's home.
"If Chavez wins, I'm thinking of leaving the country," she says. "I really don't want my children's future to be in a country in this condition."
The 25-year-old nurse, a mother of 5-year and 18-month-old boys, has spent more than half her life under Chavez's rule and says she thinks Chavez has done a lot of good.
But she lists several of the most oft-cited reasons for why she wants him gone: spiraling violent crime, the bloating of government payrolls with Venezuela United Socialist Party acolytes in do-nothing jobs at a burgeoning list of government ministries, and unchecked corruption that she says extends to the communal councils.
"What hurts Chavez are the people who surround him. They don't help because they are a band of thieves," she says. "The police are themselves crooks."
Villamizar is especially upset because the local communal council hasn't given her funds to replace her leaky old zinc roof, which is held down by loose bricks and planks.