- Associated Press - Thursday, September 27, 2012

CARACAS, VenezuelaLiliana Carias used to hope President Hugo Chavez would change her life. Not anymore.

She’s been living for years in a dirt-floor shack without running water, and after voting for Chavez in the last three presidential elections, the single mother of four said she’s tired of waiting for help.

She was among thousands of people who cheered for the president’s rival recently in the serpentine streets of Caracas’ Petare slum, which used to be a bastion of support for Chavez. She held out a handwritten letter addressed to “My future President Henrique Capriles,” the opposition challenger, writing that her salary as a supermarket cashier was no longer enough to support her family and she was worried her landlord would evict them.

“We need change,” Carias said as the drum-beating caravan paraded by. “I thought it would come with Chavez but I’m very disappointed. He promised us everything but nothing changed. I still don’t have running water, sewer or electricity.”

From single mothers to construction workers, some Chavez supporters have been turning away from the president to consider new leadership. They’ve become key to the Oct. 7 presidential vote and Capriles‘ strategy.

Surveys don’t indicate exactly which “Chavistas” are becoming “Caprilistas,” but the group appears to include working-class and lower-middle-class Venezuelans. Polls also reveal weariness over a growing yet troubled economy, 18 percent inflation and one of the world’s highest murder rates.

Despite billions of dollars in government spending on social programs, solutions to problems such as the country’s severe housing shortage have been elusive. Slums have grown during Chavez’s presidency, and the government’s construction of new housing projects hasn’t kept up with the legions of poor people like Carias who have applied for apartments and ended up waiting for years.

Now Chavez is spending heavily building apartments and paying out more benefits to poor families. But some in the working class still complain that they’re being bypassed and have lost faith in the government’s promises.

Chavez held a 10-point lead over Capriles in a survey released this week by the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. But the 49 percent who said they intend to vote for Chavez was dramatically lower than the 63 percent who re-elected him in 2006. The latest poll said 11 percent of those interviewed didn’t reveal a preference.

Analysts say a strong turnout by disenchanted ex-Chavistas could help tip the balance in favor of the challenger.

“The votes of those who have changed sides are key in this race because without them, it would be impossible for Capriles to win,” said Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalisis.

Chavez first won the presidency in 1998 with promises to sweep away corrupt, entrenched political parties and help the poor in this oil-rich country.

That message helped the soldier-turned-politician win political dominance throughout the 2000s as the economy boomed along with oil earnings. Chavez has remained popular in part thanks to social programs including state-run grocery stores, medical clinics staffed by Cuban doctors and cash benefits for poor families.

Government figures show the number of Venezuelans living in poverty decreased most markedly between 2004 and 2007, and then in the following years budged little, giving the opposition room to score some election victories. In the 2010 congressional elections, for instance, the government held on to a majority of seats but the popular vote was almost evenly split between the pro- and anti-Chavez camps.

Chavez’s popularity slipped as the economy stalled, though it still hovered around 50 percent or higher during much of the past year. In that time, he’s waged a protracted fight against cancer and had to square off against the opposition’s first ever unity candidate.

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