CARACAS (IPS)–The support of the poor, as well as the armed forces, with the exception of a minority group of dissident officers, has sustained President Hugo Chavez in the face of a month-long general strike by the opposition, which has staged the biggest protest demonstrations in the history of this South American country.
“The rich have always had so much, and we have had nothing. Now Chavez wants us to also have a little,” Josefina Gonzalez, an unemployed nurse wearing the trademark red beret of the “Chavistas,” said during a demonstration by government supporters.
Another woman of clearly modest means marched over nine miles with tens of thousands of other demonstrators through the Venezuelan capital carrying a sign on which she had scrawled “Even With Hunger and Unemployment, I’ll Stick with Chavez”–an indication of the backing enjoyed by the besieged president.
The business and labor organizations and opposition coalition leading the strike are demanding that the president resign or call immediate early elections.
Last April, a three-day work stoppage and huge opposition march culminated in a coup d’etat in which Mr. Chavez was briefly ousted by the military high command and powerful business interests. Two days later, he reclaimed the presidency with the backing of thousands of civilian supporters and loyal factions of the military.
According to private pollsters like Datanâ€¡lisis and Consultores 21, which are run by opponents of the populist Chavez, the president maintains a hard-core following of 20 to 30 percent of Venezuela’s population of 23 million.
Some analysts say that the popular support for President Châ€¡vez is based more on political hopes than on the government’s actual achievements.
The opposition “has not yet understood that what people believe can be more important than what is real, and that Chavez works above all in the sphere of the political values of the poor,” sociologist Tulio Hernâ€¡ndez observed.
Mr. Hernandez also called the poor to “defend a mistaken hope” that his government will radically improve their condition.
“When people say they will stick by Chavez even hungry and in rags, what they are saying is that they have staked everything on a man who at least in his discourse expresses part of that longing for justice that lies in the hearts of all poor people,” wrote former socialist leader Teodoro Petkoff, the chief editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual.
The president, a former paratrooper and retired lieutenant-colonel, represents a rejection of the past, since he defeated the parties that dominated Venezuelan politics and ruled the poverty-plagued although oil-rich country for 40 years. He has also challenged the traditional trade union, business, and Catholic Church leadership, besides keeping his distance from Washington, said Mr. Hernâ€¡ndez.
“What Chavez has done for us, no one did in the previous 40 years,” commented Amada Portillo, one of the leaders of the farm cooperative La Conquista, set up in the fertile plains near Lake Maracaibo in western Venezuela as part of the government’s land reform plan.
“We will defend the president with everything it takes. Love is paid back with love,” she said.
“If Chavez falls, the politicians of the past will tear apart the constitution” that was rewritten under Chavez, “in order to take hold of the country and divvy it up among themselves again, but now we know our rights,” said Luisana Reyes, the resident of a poor neighborhood on the eastside of Caracas.
Ms. Reyes held up a copy of the constitution that went into effect in 1999. More than 300,000 copies have been sold, in a country where only around 5,000 copies of the biggest literary hits usually sell. The tiny blue books cost just over a dollar.
Under Mr. Chavez, there have been “improvements on the legal and political fronts, like the legal recognition of the country’s indigenous minorities (who number 500,000 in 30 different ethnic groups) by the new constitution, and new laws on land ownership, fishing and microcredit, which have encouraged the organization of cooperatives,” said Mr. Hernandez.
President Chavez “also has the militant support of people of the old and the new left, who were unable to make it to power with their own parties and now support him because the president has taken up some of their banners and part of their platform,” he added.
Venezuela’s radical and moderate Marxist parties never took more than 13 percent of the vote in the 10 or so elections held between 1958 and 1992.
Mr. Chavez won the 1998 presidential elections with 56 percent of the vote, compared to the 40 percent taken by his rival Henrique Salas. In July 2000, he was re-elected under the new constitution to a six-year term by 60 percent of the voters, against the 37 percent who backed his adversary Francisco Arias.
Several social and economic indicators show that the situation in Venezuela today is no better than when Mr. Chavez first took office in February 1999, although efforts by the U.S.-backed opposition to destabilize the economy have been a factor.
According to the governmental Food Alert System, 12.5 percent of Venezuelans under the age of 15 suffered acute malnutrition in 1998, 11.7 percent in 1999, 11.3 percent in 2000, and 12.3 percent in 2001.
In 2002, the lowest socioeconomic strata lost 70 percent of their buying power, according to an estimate by Datanalisis that combined inflation, wages, devaluation, and the cost of the basic basket of essential goods and services.
The Chamber of the Food Industry registered a more than six percent drop in food consumption last year.
The unemployment rate, which stood at 14.5 percent in 1999, dropped to 12.8 percent in 2001, but climbed again, to 17 percent, in 2002, according to official figures. However, private consultancies and trade unions estimate unemployment at between 18 and 22 percent.