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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 07:43 GMT
Venezuela's middle class feels the squeeze
By Nathalie Malinarich
BBC News, Caracas

Boats on display in San Ignacio shopping centre
Signs of conspicuous consumption are easy to find in Caracas
"I don't want my children to grow up in the kind of country that [President Hugo] Chavez is creating," is a sentiment often expressed by members of Venezuela's middle classes as the presidential poll approaches.

It is one that has led tens of thousands of Venezuelans to emigrate.

But others are determined to stay put and resist the president who they fear will turn their country into an oil-rich version of Cuba.

While the poor and the rich - particularly, a new elite linked to the government - are widely seen to have benefited from the current administration and the oil bonanza, the middle classes have felt excluded and harassed.

As one man in a Caracas suburb put it: "We have been squeezed between the poor and the nouveau riche."

Signs of wealth are easy to find in the capital's more affluent areas, where luxury homes are springing up and the roads are full of Hummers and Audis.

In the San Ignacio shopping centre, for example, smartly-dressed diners make their way through the speedboats and quad bikes on sale there for a few weeks.

A few blocks away, huge Christmas trees from Canada are being bought for 400,000 bolivares (US$190; 86), just US$50 less than the monthly minimum wage.

Those behind the rise in conspicuous consumption are known here as the boli-burguesia, or Bolivarian bourgeoisie, because they are said to have benefited from Mr Chavez's so-called "Bolivarian revolution" (named after the 18th Century independence hero Simon Bolivar).

'Change of colours'

Political analyst Alberto Garrido says that until Mr Chavez's 1998 election, the middle classes had been gaining ground in political spheres, mostly because of increased access to university education.

Arturo Merizalde
I have never seen such levels of hatred in Venezuela before
Arturo Merizalde

"The polarisation you see in Venezuela does not involve the richest people as you might expect

"Many rich people are very happy with Chavez - they have made more money than ever.

"The traditional groups of power continue to be major power brokers - the only difference is that some of them are now red (Mr Chavez's colour)."

Unlike the middle classes, they are not driven away by the president's promise to deepen his "revolution" in 2007 because "they know they can just get on their planes whenever they want", Mr Garrido says.

'Nothing worse'

One middle class man who is determined to stay and fight for change is Arturo Merizalde, a doctor who says he had to close down his surgery in a lower-middle class area of the capital after government policies left most of his patients jobless.

In this country the standard of living is low and every single promise Chavez has made has turned out quite the opposite
Luisa, Caracas, Venezuela

"I have always been a left-wing person. I supported Chavez the first year, but then it became indefensible," he says. "He is not a leftist - he is a fascist."

Mr Merizalde, who now organises rallies of 4x4 vehicles, says many of his former colleagues are unemployed, partly because of doctors sent from Cuba in exchange for cheap oil.

"Medical students who complete their studies can't find a place to do their obligatory year of work in the community and they cannot graduate," he adds.

Acknowledging that President Chavez is probably the first leader to have taken the poor into account, Mr Merizalde says he has no faith in Venezuela's political parties. He backs the opposition because he wants the current government out.

"Nothing can be worse than this," he says.

"I have never seen such levels of hatred in Venezuela before. There is a lot of fear.

"Fear because being identified as anti-Chavez can cause you problems, fear because of the high levels of insecurity and fear because of the politicisation of education - the idea that the state 'moulds the new republicans'."

Class in decline

But Chavez supporters - including the group Clase Media en Positivo (Middle Class Positive) - argue the middle class has been helped by the president's social programmes.

Graphic showing changing social composition
The group seeks to "raise awareness of the revolutionary process" among its peers. Its president, Titina Azuaje, has said that thanks to Mr Chavez's programmes, standards of life have risen, and more people feel themselves to be middle class.

However, analysts say that this may be more a reflection of aspirations than reality.

Economist and market researcher Edmond Saade says Venezuela's socio-demographic composition has changed dramatically in the past quarter of a century because of economic cycles tied to the price of oil, the country's main export.

"In the 1980s, the ABCs represented 28% of the population," Mr Saade says citing research conducted by his firm, Datos Information Resources.

"In numeric terms, the upper and middle classes today represent 19% of the population.

"But if we apply the usual standards for a middle class family - one that can send its children to private school, take a holiday a year, change the car every four or five years and own a home - it's only 5% of the population.

"The other 14% does not share the characteristics of a middle class but has the appearance. Some of the parents may own a home, but the children when they grow up have to stay with them, and their possibilities of consumption and education are limited," he says.

'Lost elite'

Carlos Caraballo, one of more than 19,000 employees of the state oil firm PDVSA sacked in 2003 during a general strike, agrees that the middle classes "have been hard hit".

The former PDVSA communications manager says people like him have been blacklisted. "Venezuelan companies won't employ us, neither can foreign companies operating in Venezuela. We were taken off the social security list - in a way, we stopped existing."

"Not only did we lose our jobs, we lost our pensions and the money we had paid into them over the years," says Mr Caraballo, who was in PDVSA for 22 years and now works with his wife in the spa business she set up.

"A considerable part of the country's elite was in the oil business. That has all been lost - brilliant professionals trained in foreign universities now form part of the diaspora," he says.

"The middle class has seen itself diminished - its spending capacity has been severely restricted," he says.

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