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Poor’s Hopes Take Root Under Chavez

Times Staff Writer

You can see two worlds from this shambles of misery that creeps up the mountain.

The first is the neighborhood itself. Crude cinder-block houses lurch up the slope. The streets are tight -- some no wider than the span of a man’s arms. Contaminated water courses down homemade canals. It’s loud, dirty and cramped here.

The second lies in the valley below. Skyscrapers owned by multinationals soar in neat bundles. The colonial-era Congress building gleams white. The broad avenues of the rich in the east chug with traffic -- symbols of power and wealth throbbing in the distance.

The first world belongs to Maria Lopez. The second, to her dreams.

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“I’m planning to make a lot of money and leave here,” Lopez, 48, said one recent afternoon as she sat on a worn couch in her cramped living room. “I have hope.”

Lopez’s plans to escape poverty are not as farfetched as they once were. While the economy is still suffering badly, President Hugo Chavez’s promised revolution to improve the lives of Venezuela’s millions of poor is finally beginning to take off.

In the past few months, more than half a million illiterate Venezuelans have received basic reading and writing instruction. Hundreds of thousands of poor children have begun attending school for the first time in their lives. Doctors imported from Cuba as part of a petroleum deal are paying house calls to poor neighborhoods.

Perhaps most important, tens of thousands of people like Lopez have been given title to land that their families have been squatting on for generations, both in poor urban slums like this one and in vast rural tracts. Using new government credits, poor families are planting crops, organizing businesses, fixing up their homes and redesigning their neighborhoods.

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“There is an incredible flowering of activity in the communities that are participating,” said Gregory Wilpert, an American sociologist and freelance journalist living in Venezuela who is studying the effect of Chavez’s reforms. The impact of the government’s efforts is still haphazard and limited. But the measures have had a ripple effect that has left many of the poor feeling that for the first time in their lives the government is actually interested in aiding them.

This helps to explain a Venezuelan political phenomenon -- Chavez’s unwavering support in polls from about 35% of voters, most of them poor.

By nearly any measurable standard, the poor are worse off today than they were when Chavez first took office five years ago. There are fewer jobs and higher prices. Nor is it hard to find poor people who dismiss the idea that Chavez has improved their lives in any way, pointing to tougher times since he took office.

But in neighborhoods like this one, Chavez commands unswerving loyalty. Women sleep with Chavez posters over their beds. Men vow to defend him to the death, tucking pistols into the belts of dirty jeans. In many poor homes, his portrait hangs alongside that of Jesus Christ.

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It is not that Chavez, a strident leftist who has promised a war on poverty, has solved all their problems. But he is the only one who has promised to.

“I have lived through lots of different governments,” Lopez said, looking at the living room she owns after three decades of squatting. “This is the first time in my life that the government has done something for me.”

Chavez’s Rise

Venezuela in the 1970s and 1980s was in many ways the crown jewel of Latin America. Booming oil prices created a vibrant and stable middle class and wealth that trickled down even to the poorest barrios.

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But a drop in oil prices and a banking crisis in the 1990s spelled the end of the good times and the demise of the country’s two main political parties, which had long shared power.

Chavez, a military officer whose rise to power began with an attempted coup in 1992, swept into the political vacuum in 1998 and trounced opponents backed by the main parties.

One of the main planks of his platform was the promise of a “Bolivarian revolution.” The plan, named after South American liberator Simon Bolivar, called for an all-out attack on the poverty that engulfed 80% of Venezuelans.

Instead of battling poverty, however, Chavez spent the next several years fighting a list of political opponents that seemed to grow longer by the day. First businesses turned against him, then unions, then the media. Former allies also abandoned him. Even Communists joined the opposition, claiming Chavez wasn’t leftist enough.

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The different groups banded together to form a movement that, though disorganized, soon proved itself determined to get rid of Chavez.

The trigger was a series of decrees that Chavez enacted without consulting Congress. Among them was a land reform that allowed the government to seize unproductive cropland and turn it over to poor farmers. The decrees, as well as Chavez’s go-for-the-jugular rhetoric and erratic behavior, led to civil unrest.

The first salvo was general strikes in December 2001 protesting the dictatorial nature of the reforms. The strikes led to a coup attempt in April 2002, but Chavez was returned to power 48 hours later by his supporters.

After a brief hiatus, a massive general strike last December and January cost the economy an estimated $6 billion. This year, the Venezuelan economy is expected to contract by as much as 20%, following a 9% contraction last year.

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Now the opposition has mounted a recall effort, seeking to vote Chavez out of office this year or early next year. That effort suffered a setback last week when the country’s highest electoral body tossed out a recall petition signed in February by 2.8 million people, ruling the signatures were gathered too early.

Opposition leaders announced plans to make a new such effort in October.

“We are now closer than ever to victory,” said Miranda state Gov. Enrique Mendoza, one of the main opposition leaders.

For cynics, Chavez’s recent focus on the poor is explained by the looming recall. He is simply building up support to stop the opposition from winning the votes it needs to defeat him under Venezuela’s law, they say.

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But for others, the burst of government concern is the logical result of the battles waged over the past few years.

Chavez won, they say. Now the revolution can begin.

“The people have awakened. We will never go back to the past,” said Josefina Corranil, 40, who works as a maid by day and a community organizer by night.

Squatters Move In

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To see how Chavez’s revolution has slowly begun to take effect, you need only visit Lopez’s neighborhood in a poor section of Caracas named January 23, after the date of the overthrow of a Venezuelan dictator.

The neighborhood began as a housing project. Enormous Soviet-style apartment buildings were built in clusters with green fields between them to hold soccer fields and parks.

Instead, as the oil boom attracted more and more people from the countryside, the green spaces began to fill with shacks.

Within a few decades, tens of thousands of people lived in January 23, nearly all of them in substandard housing.

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National police tried repeatedly to expel the squatters, who either rebelled or simply returned in greater numbers. Eventually, politicians who recognized the votes to be gained among the squatters brought in some electricity, water and other municipal services such as schools and health clinics.

Still, the area remained underserved and dangerously beyond government control. Every summer brought rains that would send poorly built shacks crashing down the steep hillsides. Many neighborhoods hooked up electricity illegally. Water was brought from other neighborhoods using long hoses.

Lopez was one of the first to build in the neighborhood, in 1971 as a 16-year-old pregnant with her first child. She and her husband took over some vacant land and built a small house that over the years grew to be a three-story home, with one 300-square-foot room per floor. They raised four children, and today 18 relatives live in the house.

Lopez had never considered trying to improve the tumble-down community around her until one day last year, when she watched Chavez announce his plan to give out land titles to those who participated in a government program.

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Lopez is a small woman, with high cheekbones, brown hair bunched in a ponytail and a constant smile. She exudes a confidence born of a life spent making do with not much at hand. Though the program turned out to be complicated, she decided she had to become active.

“My neighborhood didn’t appear on any maps. Nobody knew who we were. Nobody cared about us. We were just here, illegal,” she said.

To get the title, Lopez went from door to door, gathering a band of about 200 homeowners. They elected Lopez and several other women -- the neighborhood is mostly single mothers -- as their representatives.

Over the next several months with the help of Chavez’s program, the women took classes in surveying and mapped their land. They wrote a community history. And they developed plans to improve the neighborhood, dubbed Santa Rosa.

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They visited the local mayor’s office and demanded services: running water, basketball courts, even a health clinic, which is being built 100 yards from Lopez’s house.

“Through this, we got to know our own community,” said Miriam Mora, 47, another of the committee members. “I knew many of them before, of course, but now I know them better.”

In the end, Lopez was the first person in Venezuela to gain title to her home through the program. About 30,000 other property owners throughout Venezuela have followed suit, and an additional 310,000 are in the process. The titles come with one restriction: The homes can be sold only in case of emergency, with permission from the government -- to prevent speculators from buying up large chunks of land from the poor.

The titles have allowed the women in the neighborhood access to government home- improvement credits. Lopez installed a new roof. Another woman surfaced the bare walls of her home with brick finishing.

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Lopez plans to use her home as collateral for a loan to create a taxi business with her family and some other relatives.

For the first time, she has begun to look beyond the rough streets of her barrio, and at the bright lights of the city below.

“As many years as I had lived here, I never worked for the community,” Lopez said. “Now I feel important. I can hardly believe it.”


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