There is growing evidence of reforms helping Venezuela’s poor

Land titles for the poor occupying public land, a million illiterate learning to read and write, and the flowering of activity in the communities, are some of the achievements of the Chavez administration.

CARACAS, Venezuela — 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.

“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, President Hugo Chavez’s promised revolution to improve the lives of Venezuela’s millions of poor is finally beginning to take off.

President Chavez giving land titles and farm machinery to farmers in the southern state of Apure.
Photo credit: Venpres (Not in orginal report)

Getting at poverty’s roots: 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 such as 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.

“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 percent of voters, most of them poor.

Measuring success: By 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 economic 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.

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 as she looked around the living room that she now owns after three decades of squatting. “This is the first time in my life that the government has done something for me.”

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.

But a fall in oil prices and a banking crisis in the 1990s spelled the end of the good times and the destruction 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.

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 and the media. Former allies also abandoned him.

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.

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 they need to defeat him under Venezuela’s law, they say.

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.

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.

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.

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.

For the first time, Lopez 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.”