THEY arrived in a steady stream throughout the morning, bearing with them a stack of Tupperware-style containers and the expectation of a decent feed. Young and old, women and men, they handed over their tubs and then took them back, steaming full of rice, chicken and soup.
"We come every day. We come to get lunch - mainly for our children.
It's really great," said Lilian Ibarra, a mother of three and a
grandmother of nine, as she waited for her food. "We all ate before but
now we eat better, with fruit and vegetables, the things the children need.
[And] we have healthcare, doctors. Whenever we have any problem the doctors
are right there."
A huge billboard calling voters to support Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is seen on top of a building in the poor '23 de Enero' neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2006. Venezuela will hold presidential elections on Sunday. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
She added, rather unnecessarily: "We are all Chavistas."
Venezuela votes today, with polls suggesting incumbent Hugo Chavez will be
easily reelected to a third term with a lead of anything up to 20 point over
his centrist challenger, Manuel Rosales.
His victory will be cemented by people such as Mrs Ibarra, for if Mr
Chavez's vision for the future of Venezuela was first forged during his
years in the armed forces - and then further burnished as he cooled his
heels in jail following a failed 1992 coup attempt - it is in the
hard-pressed barrios of Caracas that such a vision is now being realised.
In places such as the scruffy neighbourhood of El Guarataro, scores of "
missions" have been established using the country's oil wealth to help
feed and educate the poor. The Independent on Sunday was escorted on a tour
by Mariella Guzman, a 53-year-old Chavez activist who two-and-half years ago
established a government soup kitchen which feeds 150 people, six days a
Ms Guzman, wearing a bright red Chavez T-shirt showing 10 fingers (referring
to the hoped-for 10m votes in support of the president), insisted that
anyone in need - and not just supporters of Mr Chavez - were welcome at the
mission. Yet the kitchen was full of Chavez election posters and Mrs Guzman
made no attempt to pretend that anyone coming to eat would not receive a
portion of proselytizing. "The idea is not to exclude anyone," she
added. "[But] if anyone says anything bad about Chavez I will tell them
not to come to my house because this is a revolutionary house."
Another woman, Damari Briceno, who arrives every morning at 6am to help
prepare the food, spoke of an adult education class she was taking - another
mission set up by the Chavez government. "It sets an example to others
to do the same because you're a mother or a grandmother," she said. The
various missions - there are almost 20 different types in all - have had
real results, reducing poverty, increasing access to free health and
subsidised food and helping teach 1.5m adults to read. Unesco has praised
the country's efforts in this area and estimated that the adult literacy
rate stands at around 93 per cent.
Mark Weisbrot, director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and
Policy Research which has collated government data, said: "Chavez is
going to win reelection because he has delivered quite a lot on his promise
to share the country's oil wealth with the poor - which are the majority of
the population. His anti-poverty efforts are certainly bigger than anywhere
else in the hemisphere."
But Venezuela is deeply polarised between Chavez's overwhelming poor
supporters and his largely middle-class opponents. His critics say he wishes
to turn booming Venezuela into Cuba and seize private property. He has also
been accused of increasing authoritarianism and of using state resources for
his campaign. In recent weeks state television has featured a flurry of
inaugurations of new public works, including a subway line, a new bridge and
new factories. Paying state workers their Christmas bonus several weeks
earlier than usual has also been seen by some observers as an attempt to
Many of Mr Rosales' supporters also cite the level of crime in Caracas,
where kidnapping is a serious issue, as a reason for changing the
government. According to official police figures the annual number of
murders in the country increased from 5,974 in 1999 when Mr Chavez first
assumed office to 9,962 last year.
Mauricio Blanco, 36, shopping at a US-style mall in the capital, said he had
not personally suffered, but added: "It's about safety. I have
children. I live in quite a safe area but there are big problems. They do
exist." Two years ago Mr Chavez won a referendum vote that had been
initiated by opposition groups, some of which received considerable funding
from the National Endowment for Democracy, a US body that disperses
Congressional money for "democracy building" but which critics say
routinely intervenes in the domestic politics of other countries to the
detriment of left-wing or left-leaning candidates. In 2002 he was briefly
ousted in a military coup that was tacitly supported by Washington and which
resulted in the installation of an interim president, Pedro Carmona.
Mr Chavez's opponent Mr Rosales, a state governor, was among those who
signed the so-called Carmona Decree supporting the appointment, though he
has since said it was a mistake. A campaign strategist, Eliseo Fermin, said
Mr Rosales had been advised to sign by a Catholic bishop who said it would
be better to support a new president than not to.
Mr Fermin disputed the idea that Mr Rosales's supporters were overwhelmingly
middle class. He said the thousands of people who had attended Mr Rosales'
campaign rallies showed that if only middle-class people were attending "
we would be a developed country". He added: "We are fighting
radicalism and we are offering the country a leader who has demonstrated
that you can govern for everybody."
Copyright © 2006 Independent News and Media Limited