Venezuela's opposition candidates make inroads in Chavez strongholds

It looked like politics as usual: Stalin Gonzalez, an opposition candidate for Venezuela's parliament, was handing out fliers, joking with vegetable vendors and throwing his arms around frail old ladies as he made his way through a sprawling market near downtown Caracas.

But this charm offensive was different: People were actually listening.

As the campaign for the Sept. 26 legislative elections heats up, opposition candidates say poorer neighborhoods, once rabid strongholds of President Hugo Chavez, are politically viable battlegrounds once again.

"When I compare the markets now to how they used to be, the change has been complete," Gonzalez said. "People aren't scared to complain anymore and there are a lot of unhappy chavistas on the street."

No one doubts the power of the poor. According to the Hinterlaces research firm, about 77 percent of this nation is considered lower to lower-middle class. And their support is key to breaking the stranglehold that Chavez's allies have had on parliament since 2005, when the opposition boycotted the elections.

During his 11 years in power, Chavez has cast himself as their champion. He often takes to the airwaves to tell Venezuela's most humble that "no one loves you like I do" and warn them about being shunted aside by the "squalid bourgeoisie" if he ever loses power.

The government has plowed millions into health care, education and subsidies. According to the United Nations, Venezuela is a regional leader in reducing the income-gap between the rich and poor.

But other parts of the economy are stumbling badly, making even some of his most loyal supporters grumble.

In 2010, this oil-rich country will join earthquake shattered Haiti as the only economy in the Americas that will see its gross domestic product shrink; inflation -- expected to exceed 30 percent this year -- is eating away purchasing power; and crime is rampant.

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