IMAGE: SALT WORKER IN VENEZUELAN TOWN
Leslie Mazoch  /  AP
Armando Lugo shovels salt in the salt flats of Las Cumaraguas, Venezuela. People here say their lives haven't improved even though President Hugo Chavez has been promising that for nine years.
updated 12/30/2007 5:22:31 PM ET 2007-12-30T22:22:31

In this dusty town of potholed roads on the Caribbean coast, people are fascinated with the revolutionary changes that President Hugo Chavez talks about constantly on television.

But nine years after he was elected, many here say their lives are virtually the same. There are still few jobs. Running water comes only two days a week at best. Paint peels from the walls of the public school, where teachers say they badly need more books.

The state is building three dozen concrete homes here, but construction has dragged on while some residents are living in quarters so cramped they must string up hammocks in their living rooms.

Where, they ask, is Chavez's revolution?

"It hasn't arrived yet. Not here in Las Cumaraguas," says Oriel Urbina, a 48-year-old who works gathering rock salt in the cactus-fringed flats that run along the beach.

Although many Venezuelans in this town believe in Chavez and have consistently voted for him, their complaints reflect key weaknesses in his political movement that likely contributed to his first electoral defeat on Dec. 2.

Chavez blamed low turnout among supporters for the rejection of constitutional changes that would have reshaped the economy and ended presidential term limits. He said the lesson will ultimately strengthen his socialist movement; setbacks, he said, are "necessary now and then."

His popularity remains high, and he presides over an expanding economy propelled by surging oil prices.

But even some loyal backers complain of basic deficiencies in his rule: government corruption, bureaucracy, rampant crime, double-digit inflation and recent shortages of items like milk.

"They feel disenchanted, and that explains why they didn't show up" to vote, said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East. "There's a feeling that for all the high-sounding rhetoric and lofty ideals, there hasn't been sufficient attention addressed to concrete issues."

The political test that lies ahead for Latin America's most outspoken leftist hinges on whether he will be able to solve such problems and deliver on promises to those who see him as a savior.

In long, fiery speeches, Chavez talks of the socialist ideals of Karl Marx, the example set by his Cuban friend Fidel Castro, and his own plans for "the first great revolution of the 21st century." The constitutional proposals rejected by voters would have created new forms of communal property as a step in that direction.

Yet Chavez's utopian and egalitarian words often go far beyond the changes realized so far.

While the government has created free health clinics and universities, other aspects of society are business-as-usual.

Consumerism is alive and well, with the moneyed classes enjoying new cars, fine Scotch whisky and private social clubs. Central Bank statistics show the private sector accounted for more of the economy last year — 62.9 percent of gross domestic product — than when Chavez was elected in 1998, when it stood at 59.3 percent.

Slum dwellers, meanwhile, wait on long lists for public housing. And the homeless pick through trash heaps in spite of state programs intended to help them.

Still, government statistics point to progress, including a decline in the share of households considered poor from 43 percent in 1999 to 28 percent today. Unemployment is down, and gross domestic product has risen by 16 percent on a per-capita basis. Government surveys show the poorest fifth of Venezuelans have seen their share of the national income grow by 8 percent.

The overall economic performance is a strong positive for Chavez — especially the rapid growth since he regained control of the oil industry after a 2003 strike by his opponents, said economist Mark Weisbrot of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

"For these reasons, Chavez and the government's public approval is likely to remain high, and the opposition weak, regardless of the results of the referendum," Weisbrot said.

Others argue the gap between rich and poor has narrowed only modestly, and that voters rejected Chavez's proposals in part due to fears about his plans for a socialist economy.

Many Venezuelans still don't know what Chavez means by "21st Century socialism" and are not sold on the concept, said Yoel Acosta Chirinos, a former Chavez ally who once helped him lead a failed 1992 coup.

"This defeat is the beginning of the end for Chavismo," Acosta said. "Why? Because it hasn't responded to so many expectations created by (Chavez's) political project."

Chavez, a former paratroop commander, recognizes government programs are sometimes inefficient and says much remains to be done. He urges Venezuelans to give him more time and get involved in building a new socialist society.

Chavez inner circle blamed
For now, many in Las Cumaraguas are willing to wait for Chavez to deliver meaningful aid to their desolate home on the windblown Paraguana Peninsula.

Urbina and others say they wish Chavez would visit and see how much help they need. They suspect corruption and bureaucracy are hindering his goals.

"The resources don't reach us," Urbina says. "The president isn't to blame. ... It's the people around him."

In the salt flats beside the town, men in tattered clothes sling pickaxes and shovel rock salt into wheelbarrows. For each ton of salt piled up, they earn $5.60 by selling it to a plant run by a state company, Corpofalcon. Children sell chunks of salt to passing cars along a road roamed by grazing goats and donkeys.

Seven years ago, the state ended its contract with the private company that refined the salt, and assumed control. Since then, the number of jobs at the plant has shrunk, the workers say, from about 90 to 19.

Corpofalcon's president, Omar Perez, said residents are benefiting from $1.2 million that the state is investing here.

But Sirilo Garces, who collects salt, said what the town needs most are jobs. "That's what doesn't exit here."

A billboard at the salt plant announces a partially completed project to build a new warehouse and install machinery. Chavez is pictured in a red beret, raising a fist in the air beside the governor of Falcon state.

The sign reads: "Falcon Has Changed Forever."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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