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Polls: Chavez's popularity slips in Venezuela

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IAN JAMES | October 22, 2009 02:01 AM EST | AP


CARACAS, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez's support has declined in the polls as many Venezuelans say they are fed up with 27 percent inflation, a stagnant economy, faulty public services – and a government they see as incapable of doing much about it.

The president's popularity has slid in monthly tracking polls from a high of 61 percent after winning a vote in February to 52.8 percent last month, pollster Luis Vicente Leon of the Caracas-based firm Datanalisis said Wednesday, adding that the downward trend in the percentage who view his presidency positively has continued since.

After more than a decade in power, Chavez is still by far the country's most popular, most resilient and most divisive politician. What appears to have changed recently is that more are complaining about the high cost of living and a government that has often fallen far short of its promises.

"Whatever he offers, everything gets half-done," said Maria Martinez, a 32-year-old who once voted for Chavez but now is disenchanted. She says the government's health programs are insufficient, and the $500 or so she earns each month selling books in the street is no longer enough to support her five children.

She said water reaches her Caracas slum only now and then due to a broken main that officials haven't fixed.

"They always say they're going to repair the pipe, and they never do," Martinez said with a frown. "They offer and offer, and they never finish."

Leon, whose polling firm has long tracked Venezuelans' views about Chavez, said that in the past whenever his popularity has dipped near or below 50 percent, it has "set off alarms" for the president and he has found ways to boost his support. He said Chavez has recovered from worse situations before and "continues to be the strongest leader in the game."

In the past couple of months, as the lower poll numbers emerged, Chavez announced plans to bring in more Cuban doctors to staff neighborhood clinics he acknowledged had been abandoned. He also has prepared to boost spending through issuing some $8 billion in bonds.

The president said recently that the final months of 2009 "are going to be a big offensive in all areas: in politics, social issues, economic issues."

The government, which relies on oil revenues for about half its budget, is trying to turn around an economy that after years of rapid growth contracted 2.4 percent in the second quarter of the year.

"The soft spots in Chavez's regime are serious and are beginning to affect his popularity," said analyst Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "The chief problem is simply the lack of government capacity and competence. ... There is growing disappointment and frustration with government programs that are not delivering results. The effect is gradual erosion in Chavez's support."

Yet Chavez still faces no strong political opponents with anywhere near as much support. To win back popularity, Chavez is likely to boost public spending in the coming months, especially on visible projects like fixing up hospitals and stocking state-run markets with subsidized food.

According to the most recent Datanalisis poll, violent crime continues to be viewed as Venezuela's biggest problem by far with 48 percent naming it as their top concern.

Leon added that other results suggest Chavez's flagging support is very much linked to the economic crisis, as a growing number of Venezuelans worry about their personal economies.

Eleven percent of survey respondents said the high cost of living was their top concern, while 10 percent complained about unemployment.

Water problems were cited by 3.2 percent, power outages by 3 percent and the catchall "faulty public services" by an additional 4 percent.

The monthly polls, which Datanalisis carries out for about 300 clients including many businesses, have a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points. They are based on questioning in-person of 1,300 Venezuelans selected at random.

Chavez's opponents have also cited other recent polls showing a decline in the president's public approval. The government has not released poll figures in recent weeks, and Chavez's information minister was not immediately available for comment.

If Chavez is trying to win back voters who have grown disillusioned, some may be hard to convince.

Ana Mendez, a 20-year-old single mother who sells handbags in a small shop, said she used to like Chavez but thinks he should pay more attention to Venezuela's problems instead of "giving to other countries" through financed oil shipments and aid.

"He has neglected the country," she said.

From the window of her apartment, Mendez regularly sees armed robberies and says the police do nothing: "Sometimes you see blood on the ground in the morning."

On the same downtown block in Caracas, several others said they still see Chavez as the first president who truly represents them.

"He has support, he has charisma," said Yusmary Garrido, a 36-year-old who rents cell phones by the minute at a plastic table and is thankful to Chavez for the free university education she now receives. She said the socialist leader's opponents make a lot of noise but don't present viable alternatives.

"Until now, there's been no one else who can compete with him," she said.