On cue each week, Hector Madera takes his battle for Venezuela’s socialist revolution to the airwaves of a small radio station in the capital of Caracas, even as his once-wealthy country crumbles around him.
Salsa music floods a studio in the hillside slum of San Agustin as Madera leans into the microphone opening his two-hour talk show. Imperialist aggressors from the United States are waging an economic war on this country, he tells his loyal listeners.
“The threat Venezuela poses is that it puts people first,” Madera insists, contrasting how his government has provided homes to more than 1 million families against what he considers the heartless U.S. empire.
Despite a cadre of such die-hard believers, Venezuela’s Chavista revolution — named for the late President Hugo Chavez — is being tested like never before in its nearly two decades in power.
While polls say most people believe President Nicolas Maduro will coast to a second term in Sunday’s election, he will have a tough job convincing many Venezuelans and foreign governments that the vote was fair. Officials blocked his main opponents from running.
Leading opposition parties are boycotting the race, leaving as Maduro’s main challenger a one-time Chavez acolyte, Henri Falcon, who many suspect is in the government’s pocket and wouldn’t be allowed to take office even if he were somehow able to prevail.
Venezuela’s moribund economy has further dampened voters’ mood.
Years of mismanagement have steadily eroded the once-robust oil industry, which is Venezuela’s chief source of income. It produces less than it did 70 years ago, and the squeeze of financial sanctions by the Trump administration is choking the cash-starved government as it struggles to feed its people.
San Agustin has been a stronghold for Maduro. He carried the neighborhood by 20 points in the last presidential election, which he only narrowly won following Chavez’s death from cancer. But since then, the ranks of his loyalists have seen a steady stream of defectors.
Among them is Emilio Mujica. The 66-year-old owner of a food supply business faithfully backed Chavez and then Maduro. This time, however, he is voting for Falcon, who has cut into the government’s advantage with a promise to dollarize an economy battered by annual inflation estimated at 14,000 percent.
“This is a tragedy,” Mujica said, gesturing to the street in San Agustin from a small cafe surrounded by friends. “Every crisis has a solution.”
Signs of decay are everywhere in San Agustin.
Trash piling up in the streets goes uncollected, breeding swarms of flies and emitting a pungent stench. Water flows unpredictably from home spigots.
Desperation becomes obvious in the cafe when people squeeze past Mujica’s table to the counter and ask the prices of empanadas or soup, which are modest. They linger and turn around unable to afford anything, some asking customers for help on their way out.
Mujica excoriates Trump as a shameful leader of a world superpower, but says Venezuelans are paying for Maduro’s failed leadership.
“Chavez represented change, but he died,” said Mujica, who still holds faith that Venezuela’s electoral system will correct his country’s crisis.
More skeptical residents say the government’s vast machinery has rigged the vote, ensuring Maduro’s grip on power by employing food as a political weapon and by overt threats.
In daily campaign rallies broadcast on state TV, Maduro teases voters with a “prize” for those who show up at polling stations carrying their “homeland cards,” which the socialist party has issued to more than 16 million government supporters. Maduro says he is stimulating voter participation. Critics characterize it as mass bribery.
Opponents also point to rhetoric they say is another attempt to intimidate voters, such as a Maduro comment at a recent campaign rally: “If one day a government is installed that tries to turn over our nation’s riches, I’ll be the first one to take up a rifle on behalf of the armed revolution.”
In San Agustin, people described seeing “red points” set up alongside polling stations in mayoral elections last year at which pro-Maduro activists checked voters’ homeland cards. Others fear losing subsidized food deliveries and government jobs if their votes stray.
An even more ominous reminder of the government’s power sits atop San Agustin’s ridge: the helix-shaped Helicoide building, the headquarters of the feared intelligence police, where dozens of Maduro’s top opponents are jailed.
“The truth is that the revolution is a nightmare,” carpenter Luis Sosa, 36, said in a noisy backstreet workshop, refurbishing the wood of a sofa with bright pink spray paint. “In clean elections, the government would lose.”
A 20-year-old resident, who asked to remain anonymous fearing retaliation, said last year he received menacing phone calls after tearing down pro-government signs outside his home and posting Facebook messages supporting the opposition. He suspects the threats came from a “colectivo,” frequently armed pro-government groups on motorcycles that at night buzz around the maze of passageways, instilling fear among residents.
Yet others fiercely defend Maduro, despite the obvious challenges.
They point to a 1940s-era theater now a gem of the community after officials refurbished it. There are also government health and education programs. The cinderblock homes clinging to the hillside are painted in bright colors thanks to a government program to spruce up poor neighborhoods.
A government-built cable car line shuttles residents uphill. On weekends, parents fill bleachers on San Agustin’s main plaza to cheer on boys playing in a neighborhood basketball league dressed in spanking-new uniforms provided by the government.
However, former Trade Minister Moises Naim said the pages of history books are filled with people hanging on to dead ideas. Naim, who created a highly critical TV miniseries about Chavez that was banned in Venezuela, calls it “political necrophilia.”
One of Chavez’s most damaging policies was taking over large swaths of the economy, pushing out private business, Naim said.
“You taste the sugar and it gives you a high for a little while, but there’s no nutrition,” he said. “That is what happened with Chavismo.”
Radio host Madera, 63, steps onto the sidewalk from the studio and reminds people he meets of the revolutionary dream Chavez launched. He is taking the message door-to-door, shouldering a large megaphone.
Madera is confident that 10 million revolutionaries will turn up on election day to propel Maduro forward in an honest and fair contest. They’re not voting for Maduro the man, he says, but rather the embodiment of Chavez’s ideals representing a battle to liberate Venezuela from capitalism’s grasp.
“Sure, we have deep problems. But it’s because of these challenges that we launched the revolution,” Madera said, adding that after a generation in power Chavismo is part of Venezuela’s social fabric. “How can you doubt that your mother is your mother if you’ve known her all her life? How can you doubt the air you breathe?”
Scott Smith on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottSmithAP