Here in the oil-rich eastern region of Venezuela, propaganda for President Hugo Chávez dominates the landscape, from spotless billboards by the airport to dusty banners over trash-strewn lots. A hillside water tank carries the name of Chávez’s PSUV party.
Though President Chávez has spent years focusing on the region’s strategic importance, cultivating support for his party and its policies of “21st century socialism,” his campaign has hit resistance here. And it has become one of the places where opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski stands to pick up votes when the country goes to the polls on Sunday.
Over the course of his nearly 14 years as President, Chávez has made it clear he wants supporters of his socialist revolution to control access to the region’s quarter trillion barrels of oil reserves. But with a record of oil spills, a rising accident rate in refineries, and social problems like the continent's highest murder rates and weekly blackouts, Chávez’s time in office may be working against him, weighing on his public support here, and across much of the country.
"It's very tight, and both have very similar chances of winning," says Iñaki Sagarzazu, a Venezuelan teaching at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. "It will come down to who mobilizes the most."
Mr. Sagarzazu says that Chávez support has moved from urban to rural areas over the years. That’s left the president with a base in the plains while urban areas have moved largely to the opposition, which this year is supporting Mr. Capriles, governor of a state that includes part of the capital, Caracas.
Here in this region, too, people have shifted their support away from the incumbent.
"He never does what he says," says Reina, a mother of 11 and full-time homemaker, who was shy about talking to the press. She says she has supported Chávez for years, but is still undecided as to whether she will give him her vote again in a race that’s too close to call, with pollsters and analysts divided on which candidate is the most likely winner.
Environmental and Labor Woes
Venezuela is experiencing 18 percent inflation and there is a sense that neighbors, such as Brazil, have emerged more successfully from poverty. Such concerns are countering Chávez's emotional connection with the people and his ability to attract support with populist programs such as free homes. In the oil region, environmental issues have also affected the president's standing. One case is Monagas state, where the president received 71 percent support in the 2006 election.
A pipeline burst in the state Feb. 4, spilling thousands of barrels of crude into the Guarapiche river. Local opposition press reported that for the first hours of the disaster, the state oil company failed to halt the flow, in part because some employees were away in the capital for a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of Chávez leading a failed military coup.
The spill forced managers to halt water withdrawals from the river, leaving about 200,000 residents of the city of Maturin with limited running water for six weeks.
The state's governor, Jose Gregorio Briceño, criticized the central government's response, and was ejected from the PSUV in retribution. He now supports Chávez's opponent, Capriles, and his change of sides may improve the Capriles mobilization, allowing the opposition to pick up votes.
The labor movement in the oil and basic industries sectors has also become less reliably pro-Chávez. The workers were solidly in the president's camp six years ago, when Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez told workers that the state oil company was "deep red," referring to Chávez's team color. But many of them have also grown disillusioned with promises of a workers' paradise accompanied by no-bid contracts for newly rich suppliers, while health and safety standards decline.
Is Fourteen Years ‘Enough?’
Even the most dedicated supporters say the big extractive industries need fundamental change.
Raúl Párica is a leader in the pro-Chávez oil workers union. He rattled off a list of complaints about the state oil company, PDVSA, including inefficiency, bureaucracy, and corruption. He still says he'll vote for Chávez, but that crime is an epidemic. The PSUV party is infested with opportunists with no social conscience, he says. What is needed is deeper, cultural change — a "cultural revolution." Fourteen years isn't enough time to change a culture that developed over a century, Párica says.
And Chávez's diminished support here won't all translate into more votes for challenger Capriles. Jose Bodas, a plant operator and union leader with the state oil company, moved away from the president in 2007, and today he is supporting Orland Chirinos, a little-known third-party candidate, saying that Capriles is fundamentally a representative of the business class, and won't support workers.
Shifting politics at the state oil company violates one of Chávez's primary goals, which is to keep the country's oil out of the hands of the US and the local opposition, whom he calls "lackeys." But there is no sign of another round of political purges at the company, which went on strike against the president's policies ten years ago, driving up oil prices worldwide.
Not All Want ‘Change’
One irony of the race is that the self-proclaimed revolutionary is now a conservative choice, attracting support from people who have gained under his administration and now fear losing their piece of the pie — be it a lucrative contract, a basic job, or something as small as a handouts of inexpensive meat and milk. Chávez won in 1998 as the candidate of hope and change, but he is now an institution.
Adriana Marin says she has friends who will vote for the president because their parents are doing much better under Chávez than they had under prior administrations. She says she'll support Capriles because she says Venezuela is becoming less free compared to other countries in the region.
Ms. Marin isn't alone. Capriles has hooked many supporters with his message of change. When he closed out his campaign in the region Tuesday, tens of thousands of supporters turned out. He told them he would halt the politicization of state enterprises and the current policy of pressuring workers to contribute one day of salary per month to the governing political party.
Chávez, who is recovering from cancer, didn't show up to his own campaign-closing ceremony here, instead saving energy for a rally yesterday in Caracas that was likely the biggest of the campaign. There, he responded to those who say he hasn't fulfilled long-standing promises, telling the crowd he’ll be more "efficient."