by Humberto Marquez
(IPS) CARACAS --
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 37-day 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," told IPS during a demonstration by government supporters.
Another woman of clearly modest means marched 15 kilometers 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 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 Datanalisis 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 Chavez 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 Hernandez told IPS.
"The people who follow Chavez defend a mistaken hope -- the idea that their government can produce radical changes that will improve the conditions of the dispossessed classes," said Hernandez.
"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 Hernandez.
"What Chavez has done for us, no one did in the previous 40 years," 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, commented to IPS.
"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," Luisana Reyes, the resident of a poor neighborhood on the eastside of Caracas, told IPS.
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 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 Hernandez.
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 ten or so elections held between 1958 and 1992.
In 1993, the presidential candidate of the left, Andrés Velasquez, garnered slightly more than 20 percent of the vote, in an election in which turnout stood at just 45 percent.
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 reelected 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 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 6 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.
A little over half of the economically active population continues to work in the informal sector of the economy.
Venezuela's inflation rate was the highest in Latin America throughout much of the 1990s. It dropped to 29.9 percent a year in 1998 and to 12.3 percent in 2001, but rose again to 31.2 percent in 2002, partly due to the depreciation of the bolivar after it was set to float freely against the dollar at the start of that year.
The bolivar averaged 605 against the dollar in 1999, compared to 1,330 in 2002.
In 2001, at least 45 percent of Venezuelans were unable to satisfy their basic needs, a proportion that likely increased to around 55 percent in 2002, according to the Andrés Bello Catholic University's Institute of Economic and Social Research.
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