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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 March 2007, 11:29 GMT
Venezuelans wary over Chavez reforms
By Justin Webb
BBC News, Venezuela

Jose Felix Ribas barrio
Many of the President's supporters live in Jose Felix Ribas barrio

As US President George Bush tours South America, his ideological enemy, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, is facing growing nervousness at home over his economic strategy.

I am sitting in a car in a petrol station on the outskirts of Caracas watching evidence of the pleasures and the pitfalls of being a wealthy Venezuelan.

The upside: petrol here is cheaper than the most basic bottled water. In this oil-rich nation car drivers get a pretty good deal.

The downside: sitting on a wall across from our car is a heavily armed guard - every petrol station in Caracas has one. This is an insecure society - a place where the traditional attitude to the poor has been to keep them at bay and to shoot at them if they try anything.

Minutes later we are on our way and Jose - my friend and guide for the evening - is shouting over the sound of the engine. Like all Venezuelans Jose talks without pause for breath, and drives almost entirely in second gear.

Callous attitude

We are careering under a bridge when he announces: "And some of the men - they had sex with the bodies of the dead women."

What an odd thing to say. Odd in any circumstances but particularly these. Jose and I are discussing the mudslide of 1999 which killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people in a slum not far from here.

To be fair Jose himself had brought it up. I had certainly forgotten all about it but there is a callousness here in the way the rich refer to the poor - almost as another species. To be pitied for sure, but to be treated warily.

Hugo Chavez - the barrel-chested former army officer whose revolution is now in its eighth year, is a champion of the poor. He treats them with avuncular concern and I am here to talk to his advisors about how their efforts are going.

I visit Temir Porras, a senior adviser, in a government building in the centre of town. He is a charming man of 32 - multi-lingual and cosmopolitan.

He is sitting in a white room with no windows, a rickety desk and a computer, organising the revolution's first management school.

With disarming frankness he explains that when you are taking over large swathes of private industry and running it from here it is quite important to have people who know what they are doing.

Economic strain

After our interview he escorts us back to the lifts and explains that the button gave up working ages ago.

"It is like getting a bus," he says cheerfully. "You just have to wait for one to come."

It is all great fun and at the same time - to me - rather depressing.

Ana Uzcategui
Subsidised shopping has won support from the poor

Governments are capable of mending lifts - though in the Venezuelan case, not doing it very quickly, but are they capable of running economies? Already there are signs of strain.

With much of the government's oil money being spent rather than invested, inflation is running at over 20% and getting worse.

Efforts to reduce it - government price controls - are encouraging shortages of basic goods like meat and chicken as shopkeepers try to sell them for higher prices on the black market, claiming it is the only way they can make a living. Mr Chavez calls them capitalists and talks of prison.

You know where this can end, particularly if you are old enough to remember eastern European communism. It ends in repression.

And I met plenty of people who are worried - and worried enough not to want their names widely reported.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez has threatened to seize food shops

But Hugo Chavez has - so far - sent very few people to jail for political crimes. Venezuelans still speak their minds.

"Chavez is a son of a bitch," a former politician tells us loudly in a crowded restaurant - and then he adds almost wistfully, "but he's not done anything to me."

And a genuine Latin American plutocrat - the kind of portly man who wears bright yellow corduroy trousers and almost gets away with it - told me he had met Chavez face to face and told him: "Your friend, Fidel Castro, is a killer. You are not."

Chavez, he said, did not reply. The plutocrat was comforted by that silence - though I think he has several passports just in case.

The journey from Caracas to the airport is comically slow. One day there will be a six-lane motorway but a bridge in the middle has yet to be completed so after a few minutes of speed we take a detour down a ditch into the middle of a slum.

There is just about room for a lane of traffic in each direction and on either side little brick shacks with corrugated iron roofs cling to the tiny space between the road and the mountain.

There is no glass in the windows - you see through bars straight into single rooms divided by bits of cloth hanging from the ceiling.

Where I live in Washington, dogs have more privacy. As we crawled along at walking pace two little girls - they must have been about eight or nine - darted out of a bus in front of us and in through a door. They were wearing school uniform.

Before Hugo Chavez that sight would never have been seen here. I find myself torn by Venezuela - its economic experiment seems to me utterly doomed, and yet at the same time, wonderfully noble.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 March, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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