On eve of vote, Venezuelan president accuses Washington of backing rival
Dec. 2, 2006. 01:00 AM
JENS ERIK GOULD
CARACAS—Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says his real opponent when he goes up for re-election tomorrow won't be main opposition candidate Manuel Rosales. Rather, it will be the United States.
Chavez, who famously called U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations in September, is convinced that Washington is behind Rosales' effort to unseat him.
He told hundreds of thousands of supporters at a campaign rally that his true rival was the "imperialist government of the United States."
Chavez's anti-Bush rhetoric resonates in Latin America, where opposition is growing to the free-market capitalist reforms urged by Washington. With Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador all electing leftist presidents in the past year, the Venezuelan leader sees the region's leftward shift as an opportunity to rebuff U.S. influence.
But Chavez's supporters offer another explanation for his commanding lead in most public opinion polls: a legacy of generous social development programs bankrolled by windfall oil profits to provide cheaper food, free education and free health care for the poor.
"President Chavez has confronted the problem of poverty and the social problems that have been serious in our country," said lawmaker William Querales, who is on the foreign policy committee at the legislature. "Foreign policy has an effect, but obviously a leader grows stronger through the solution of internal problems."
The opposition counters by pointing to studies showing that Chavez, 52, has failed to put a major dent in poverty and that violent crime has worsened.
Freddy Linarez, 48, a construction worker from the dangerous Caracas neighbourhood of Petare, said the government was not doing enough to fight crime.
"You have to be more afraid of the police than the actual thieves," Linarez said. "People steal here in Petare and neither the National Guard nor the police do anything. And the mayor doesn't even show his face."
But many in the poor neighbourhoods, called barrios, on the outskirts of Caracas say they are better off since Chavez was elected in 1998.
Tacagua is a barrio where many homes are made of scraps of tin pieced together. Here, gang violence and drug use are part of everyday life, and the government has been slow to provide new housing for families whose homes are in danger of collapsing in mudslides.
Even so, posters and graffiti praising Chavez permeate the neighbourhood.
Yris Machado, 41, a widow, could feed her four children only one meal a day until a Chavez-backed program began supplying her with food staples. Now, she and her children, one of whom has Down syndrome, eat three meals a day.
"Thanks to my president, now I can say that I'm going to buy a new mattress for my daughter and I'm going to give her a better way of living," Machado said.
Across town in the low-income area of El Valle, Gladys Garcia is thrilled with the Chavez government. After being denied treatment by a private hospital because she couldn't pay, Garcia is now getting attention at a free government-sponsored health-care clinic.
The program called Barrio Adentro, Spanish for "inside the neighbourhood," brings tens of thousands of Cuban doctors to work in Venezuela in exchange for Venezuelan oil under preferential terms. Since 2003, thousands of red-brick clinics have sprung up across the country, giving the poor 24-hour-a-day treatment closer to home.
It is voters like Garcia and Machado that Rosales' campaign is failing to win over, although he has promised to tackle Venezuela's growing problems with crime and corruption, as well as putting an end to Chavez's generous aid to allies like Cuba.
Rosales also accuses the government of politicizing state entities. His campaign released a video earlier this month showing Chavez's energy minister Rafael Ramirez threatening to lay off state oil company workers who didn't support the president.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.