LOS GUAYABITOS, Venezuela -- The residents of this windswept farming village have reason to be angry.
For the last 15 years, Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” has promised to pave the rutted dirt road that keeps them isolated from markets and jobs. A school that was started seven years ago was never finished. Many of their houses are slapped together out of mud and wood.
Yet a year after the death of President Hugo Chávez, Los Guayabitos remains, perhaps, the most loyal swath of Venezuela. Every one of its 121 voters cast their ballot for Chávez during his final race in 2012. And every one of them voted for his successor Nicolás Maduro.
As opposition protests and a rising death toll cast a pall over last week’s memorial celebrations for El Comandante, it’s clear that one of Chávez’s legacies is a deep connection with the country’s poorest. And it’s that legacy — fraying but not yet broken — that some believe is keeping the besieged Maduro administration afloat.
Domingo Fernández, a yuca farmer in Los Guayabitos, has been watching the swelling protests on television, but he says nothing he’s seen or heard sways his sympathies.
“The opposition is against this government, but what are they for?” he asked. “They’ve never offered anything to us poor people.”
Los Guayabitos sits at the end of a winding dirt road that cuts into the mountains of Miranda state, about two hours southeast of Caracas. The local government recently began providing daily Jeep service up the hill, but during the rainy season the community is almost virtually cut off, locals said.
Although opposition leader Henrique Capriles won the governor’s race for Miranda in 2012, Los Guayabitos only gave him three votes — and residents said they can’t fathom who might have done such a thing.
Fernández said that from his vantage point, up on the hill, Capriles and people like him seem like a mirage.
“They’re like peacocks,” he said. “They look good, but they don’t sing.”
Chávez the Charmer
During his 14 years in power, Chávez not only sang but danced, joked and wooed the poor as he used the nation’s petrol wealth to finance public housing, education and healthcare. Venezuela reduced poverty between 2011 and 2012 faster than any country in the hemisphere, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. And even when that largesse didn’t make it to places like Los Guayabitos, the villagers seemed to identify with the folksy former soldier.
During last week’s commemoration of Chávez, Maduro underscored the work of his boss, who died a year ago at the age of 58 after battling an undisclosed form of cancer.
“Hugo Chávez has passed into history as the great redeemer of the poor of the Americas,” Maduro said from Chávez’s hilltop tomb. “The nations of the south called him Christ the Redeemer of the 21st Century.”
Few go as far as Maduro in adulation, but Chávez does have an almost cult-like following among the poor, said Alfredo Croes, a Caracas-based analyst who publishes the Venebarometro public-perception poll.
“ Chavismo empowered the poor considerably,” he said.
A few hundred yards from Chávez’s crypt, in the 23 de Enero neighborhood, locals have erected a makeshift shrine to “Saint Hugo Chávez.”
“He gave so much to us,” said Elizabeth Torres, 49, the caretaker of the memorial. “And that’s why the poor are still loyal to him.”
The Price of Populism
But Chávez’s populist policies have taken their toll. The combination of price regulations and foreign currency controls have spawned a black market for goods and rampant speculation. Inflation hit 56 percent last year — the world’s highest — and people often wait in line for hours in hopes of buying subsidized beef or cooking oil.
To complicate matters, the country bleeds with one of the most alarming crime rates in the world.
The most recent Venebarometro poll found that 81 percent of those surveyed said that insecurity was their top concern, followed by food shortages and the cost of living. All of this in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves.
Venezuela’s troubles hit the poor just as hard, if not harder, than the rich, said Fredis Guzmán, a 62-year-old interior decorator. Guzmán lives in the working-class neighborhood of Petare, a government stronghold. And while the neighborhood hasn’t seen outright protests, he said the mood is grim.
“Maduro wants to make Venezuela like Cuba, and things are getting ugly here with the food shortages and the insecurity,” he said. “Sometimes you wait in line three or four hours to buy something, and by the time you get inside it’s all gone.”
On a recent weekday, Guzmán had spent hours searching for stucco that he needed to finish a job.
“Whether you’re a Chavista or a follower of the opposition, we all have to stand in the same line to buy a little bit of flour or a little bit of chicken,” he said.
The opposition has tried to appeal to the poor. During his presidential race against Maduro, Capriles promised to do more for the needy, regardless of their political affiliation.
But the rhetoric couldn’t be backed up with action, said Croes. Almost a decade and a half of electoral defeats, including at the municipal level, have left the opposition hamstrung, he said.
“Their ability to take action in poor neighborhoods has been dismembered,” he said. “They’ve lost political power, but they’ve also lost financial power.”
Even so, Capriles managed to win 7.4 million votes, or 49 percent of the electorate. Although he lost, it was proof that the opposition can have popular appeal, Croes said.
“ Chavismo has an organic connection with the poor, but it’s losing it,” he said. With those elections, “the opposition opened a window” into the administration’s base.
That window didn’t even crack in Los Guayabitos.
The town of about 400 people doesn’t get cable television or newspapers. Instead, they’re reliant on broadcast television and radio — much of it state-run — for their news. But they say they have seen real benefits from local government. Politicians have handed out seeds and provided school children with educational laptops called Canaimas.
Fidel Henrique Quintero, 55, lives in a mud-walled hut with his son and four grandchildren. Despite his precarious economic situation, he said Chávez changed his village and his life permanently.
“You can see reality from here, and we know that things will never be the same,” he said of the poor’s role in politics. “The opposition are egocentric, they never want us to get ahead.”