Chavez woos Venezuelan voters by pitching credit cards, cheap refrigerators ahead of elections

By Ian James, AP
Saturday, September 25, 2010

Chavez fights to keep control in legislative vote

CARACAS, Venezuela — Going into Sunday’s legislative elections, President Hugo Chavez pitched his candidates like a salesman, promising Venezuelans he will give them low-interest credit cards and discounted appliances from washing machines to TV sets.

Chavez turned to his long successful populist appeals seeking to woo voters more concerned with their pocketbooks than with his socialist politics. He is trying to hold off a determined challenge by the opposition, which is intent on breaking Chavez’s stranglehold on the National Assembly for the first time in his presidency.

“I want us to win the elections by knockout!” Chavez told cheering supporters during one of his final campaign rallies, standing amid allied candidates dressed in his party’s signature red.

Chavez’s allies have had near total control of the congress since opposition parties boycotted the last legislative elections in 2005. If Chavez’s opponents can deny him a two-thirds majority, they would have more clout in trying to check his sweeping powers.

The vote is also a referendum on Chavez himself before the next presidential election in 2012. Polls suggest he remains the most popular politician in Venezuela, yet surveys also say his approval ratings have slipped in the past two years as disenchantment has grown over problems including rampant crime, poorly administered public services and 30 percent inflation.

Apparently seeking to turn up the heat in the campaign, Chavez has launched a program to provide Venezuelans with special, low-interest credit cards that can be used to shop at state-run stores and for travel, calling it the “Good Life Card.”

Chavez also campaigned for his allies touting cheap appliances that the government has begun importing from China on credit. He called that evidence of his government’s commitment to making life affordable while prices charged by private stores have been climbing rapidly.

“I’m going to sell you all some tremendous refrigerators — very cheap, among the best in the world,” Chavez said during one televised event. “Gas stoves at half price, water heaters, washers, television sets, air conditioners — on credit and with no down payment.”

Opposition candidates dismissed the program as a gimmick and also complained that Chavez’s allies have benefited from public funds while trying to hold on to control of the 165-seat legislature.

“What’s at stake is democracy, the balance of powers, that there be controls,” said Stalin Gonzalez, a 29-year-old opposition candidate and former student protest leader running against the incumbent assembly president, Cilia Flores.

Gonzalez said that for the past five years, compliant lawmakers have focused on helping Chavez amass more power while ignoring Venezuela’s violent crime and corruption and government scandals such as the discovery of thousands of tons of decomposing food in shipping containers at a port.

“What Chavez is is a populist, and he keeps playing with the public and making electoral offers to try to get support,” Gonzalez said.

He noted that the credit card and discounted appliance programs are still barely getting off the ground, and pointed out that many of Chavez’s past promises for public housing, hospital renovations and other projects have not been kept.

The opposition’s stated goal is to win a majority in the National Assembly vote for the first time since Chavez was elected president nearly 12 years ago. The opposition faces major challenges, in part due to a controversial election law that redrew some legislative districts and gave greater weight to votes in rural areas, where Chavez remains more popular.

Opposition candidates, whose support has grown in urban areas, called the changes an unfair advantage for Chavez but agreed to participate in the elections and respect the results as long as the vote count is transparent. Both political camps will have witnesses at polling stations keeping an eye on the balloting.

If Chavez’s allies manage to retain a two-thirds majority, it would give them the power to keep rewriting laws unopposed and to appoint officials including Supreme Court justices and members of the electoral council.

Chavez and his supporters sought to mobilize his loyalists by calling the election a chance to keep his “Bolivarian Revolution” rolling and to defend its socialist-inspired programs.

As Chavez stepped atop a campaign truck in Caracas, supporters called to him excitedly as he made eye contact person-by-person, waved and pounded his fist into the palm of a raised hand.

“I love him,” gushed Sinahy Tuta, a 37-year-old accountant who shouted out to Chavez. She said the opposition seems a loosely unified collection of leaders. “We have a single one,” she said.

Despite those emotions, disillusionment with Chavez’s government has grown. Even in the barrios that have traditionally been pro-Chavez strongholds, some people say they see the government as unresponsive to their problems.

“I’m not sure if I’m going to vote,” said Rosalba Machado Diaz, an unemployed 45-year-old who in the past voted for Chavez and his supporters. “I’m not sure, because there’s so much disenchantment.”

In the hillside slum of Blandin where she lives on the outskirts of Caracas, heavy rains caused a landslide several days ago that crushed a home and killed seven people — among at least 14 landslide victims citywide during the week.

Machado lost her home in similar landslides in 1999. She said that despite years of trying, she has been unable to get help from the government to relocate — so she must live with six relatives crowded in a two-room concrete home.

Her neighbor, Evelyn Laguna, pointed to a hillside above that has begun to erode, threatening more destruction.

“What we want are solutions,” she said.

While officials evacuated dozens of residents, Chavez sent condolences to the community hit by the first landslide. He said the sprawling slums on unstable hillsides are a product of the policies of previous governments and that his government is working to solve the housing problems.

Chavez often blames societal problems on his predecessors and says he is still working to remedy the ills of capitalism. He points to a decline in poverty during his presidency and to programs he began for the poor such as adult education, cash benefits for single mothers and free medical clinics staffed by Cuban doctors.

On the campaign trail, Chavez used his time-tested script, pledging more social programs while seeking to portray his opponents as stooges serving the interests of Venezuela’s old-guard elite and his adversaries in the U.S. government.

“We’re going to give them a beating,” Chavez told supporters at a rally Thursday. The crowd responded by chanting, “They won’t return!”

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