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, shouted from her pane-less window as three foreign journalists climbed 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 flew from a second-floor window of Ivana Villamizar’s home.
“If Chavez wins, I’m thinking of leaving the country,” she said. “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 said she thinks Chavez has done a lot of good.
But she listed 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 said. “The police are themselves crooks.”
Villamizar was 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.
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“That’s not the government’s fault,” interrupted her neighbor, Jacinto Suarez, a 69-year-old former beer truck security guard.
Oh yes it is, she said, because Vice President “Elias Jaua is behind the communal councils and the president is behind him.”
The councils allow Chavez’s political machine to bypass local and state governments, sometimes controlled by the opposition, and reach the grass roots.
Suarez is a committed Chavista, and his house is being rebuilt. During Friday’s visit by Associated Press journalists, two laborers were plastering the brick and mortar that replaced the rickety wood and cardboard walls.
“For me, if ‘El Flaco’ wins the missions will go away. We’ll all die. We’ll all die of hunger,” Suarez said. “He’s with the bourgeoisie.”
Nonsense, Villamizar retorted.
“They will continue,” she said of the missions, “because if they don’t it will be a horrendous mess.”
Venezuelans, whose oil-export driven economy produces little else, have become more dependent than ever under Chavez on state handouts and Capriles has expressed no intention of weaning them from government aid.
He has painted himself a center-leftist, promising to keep the missions and not to thin public payrolls. Capriles is, however, solidly backed by Venezuela’s right and that has stoked fears of a huge purge of Chavez loyalists if he wins.
The fears have fueled sporadic violence. Little has been lethal, but two Capriles supporters were shot dead last weekend in the president’s home state of Barinas, and some blamed Chavez supporters.
Two days ahead of voting, Villamizar echoed a widespread feeling that the race is so close that the election will be decided by a large pool of voters, perhaps 10 percent, making up their mind in the voting booth.
Opinion polls have varied widely and are largely considered unreliable, so intuition is getting a workout.
“There are so many Chavistas, so many people who live in this barrio … who are public employees and have been obliged to attend government rallies,” she said. “But when it comes to the moment of truth are not going to vote for Chavez,” she added.
“And there are others who will do the opposite.”
Villamizar said she had no idea what would happen Sunday.
“I’ll tell you, I don’t know. I just don’t know. Let it be what God wills. ”
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.