Clinics, cable cars help Venezuela's Chavez in vote
CARACAS Feb 10 (Reuters) - Cheap housing, health clinics and even a new cable car have kept President Hugo Chavez popular in the Caracas slum of San Agustin throughout a turbulent decade and help explain why Venezuelans may approve the socialist leader's bid to extend his rule.
Himself from humble roots, Chavez is relying on his enduring popularity among the poor to win a referendum vote on Sunday that would scrap term limits and let him govern Venezuela for as long as he keeps winning elections.
At the moment, the ex-soldier who once led an abortive coup before winning power at the ballot box has to step down in 2013. He is slightly ahead in most polls but could lose if turnout is low or if undecided voters swing against him.
San Agustin is one of hundreds of tightly packed "barrios" that consume the steep hills around Caracas and contain a large part of the city's estimated 5 million habitants.
Although major problems such as violent crime have cut into Chavez's once overwhelming support among the poor, he is still very popular here for investing in health clinics and projects to move families from precarious shacks.
A cable car will also soon be opened, saving residents of the hilltop slum hours of walking each week.
"He's the only president who has really worked for the poor," said Maria Acosta, 77, receiving free in-patient treatment at a clinic run by Cuban doctors. "If I could tie him to this chair so he doesn't leave us, I would."
Such passion is typical of Chavez's most loyal supporters who make up about a third of voters and love their leader for, they say, making Venezuela's millions of poor feel cared for.
"If someone has a good wife they don't go and change her. Well, that's what we are like with this man," Acosta said.
Venezuela's poverty levels rose in the 1990s after years of economic crises, but have declined again during Chavez's decade in power. Chavez's support, especially among the poor, climbed with oil prices as he spread the wealth, paying pensions, subsidizing food and raising wages.
But corruption and bureaucracy plague his government, which is behind on goals such as building affordable homes for the poor. Many Caracas barrios have received less help than San Agustin and in regional elections late last year Chavez's party lost control of the city hall.
'TIRED OF BLAH BLAH'
Millions of Chavez supporters chose not to vote when he last tried to change the electoral rules in 2007 as part of an overhaul of the constitution, and he narrowly lost.
A new defeat could mean his ambition to turn Venezuela into a beacon of socialism will end in four years, although he does not rule out future bids to change the constitution.
"We lost in 2007 by forfeit," Chavez said at a recent electoral workshop. "The reason for our defeat was abstention."
Determined not to repeat the experience, he has toned down his usually aggressive rhetoric toward the opposition to focus on getting his supporters out to vote.
"The strategy is mobilization, go out, search and bring in the voters, check who has voted or not," said Livia Perez, a veteran activist and former leftist guerrilla in San Agustin.
At the weekend, residents spilled onto the streets to watch the president canvassing door-to-door in the sprawling Petare neighborhood, which was for years a bastion of Chavez support.
But hundreds of people are killed by gunfire in Petare every year, and residents fed up with violence and poorly-lit, trash-strewn streets voted in an opposition mayor last year.
They say Chavez should resolve these problems and others such as high food prices rather than seeking to stay in power.
"He does not understand that people are tired of pure blah blah, that our kids are still getting killed, while he wants to become king," said Maria, watching Chavez wave from a red open-topped car. She declined to give her last name.
Even in San Agustin where housing projects are more advanced than elsewhere, not everyone thrills to the campaign.
Until November, 30-year-old Karlin Rangel lived in a brick hut at risk of collapsing into the gully it clung to. Now she lives in a spacious apartment built by the government, one of several hundred erected in San Agustin in the last few years.
But she attributes the improvements to residents' hard work in pushing the government to meet its promises. "I'm more interested in what happens in the community than national politics," she said. (Additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez and Fabian Andres Cambero, Editing by Saul Hudson and Kieran Murray)
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