ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Venezuelans are voting today in a closely watched election that is expected to handily return President Hugo Chavez to office. While Chavez butts heads with the Bush administration, the soldier and self-styled revolutionary enjoys a nearly cult-like status among many Venezuelans, principally the vast number of poor. They have benefited from well-funded social programs and are expected to show their gratitude at the polls.
From Caracas, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the heart of the Chavez revolution.
JULIE MCCARTHY: Hugo Chavez is a man with a mission. In fact, he's a man with a lot of missions. That's the name given to the wide range of social, health and educational programs that Venezuela's petro-dollars have been generously funding. The Robinson Mission improves literacy and education. Here President Chavez hands out certificates to citizens, young and old, who've just completed the sixth grade. He presents a diploma to 26-year-old Magali(ph), who suffers from dwarfism by squatting down to meet her eye to eye and breaking into song about her home state in the mountains.
President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Singing in Spanish)
MCCARTHY: Chavez rarely misses an opportunity to warble in public, especially before so sizeable a crowd. The president declares that 327,000 people will receive certificates this day for passing the sixth grade, including English.
President HUGO: (Speaking Spanish)
MCCARTHY: Quoting the Cuban national hero, Jose Marti, Chavez tells the assembled to be educated is to be free. He says you must become readers. Fifty-three-year-old Theresa De Jesus is a convert. Invited on stage, she manages to do what few Venezuelans could, upstage her master showman president. She grabs his microphone to showoff her new linguist ability.
Ms. THERESE DE JESUS: One, two, three, four, five, six and seven!
(Soundbite of cheering)
MCCARTHY: Residents in one barrio complain that people sign up for mission scholarship money and drop out of the program. But Theresa De Jesus exhorts her fellow citizens to take full advantage of all the missions established by Chavez, which are the centerpiece of his revolution, named for the independence leader Simon Bolivar.
One of the best-known missions is Barrio Adentro. The healthcare service began as small clinics implanted in poor neighborhoods, run by doctors imported from Cuba. The program now boasts high-tech diagnostic centers and popular clinics, such as this one in a Caracas barrio called Cotoia. During a press briefing this week, the health minister said that since its founding three years ago, Barrio Adentro has administered to 17 million of the country's 26 million people.
Critics complain that the care is sub-par. But today, waiting rooms brim with babies being vaccinated, mothers - some as young as 15 - seeking checkups, and the elderly being treated for everything from high blood pressure to tooth pain. Thirty-seven-year-old dentist Juan Pablo Losano(ph) says his after hours private practice is dwindling because so many people are taking advantage of the free healthcare now on offer. He says he earns $350 a month from his public practice and only a bit more from his private practice. But he feels he's discharging a sense of duty in the free clinics.
Dr. JUAN PABLO LOSANO (Dentist): (Speaking Spanish)
MCCARTHY: I feel I'm contributing something to the Bolivarian revolution, he says, helping achieve a better future for my country, for the people. I feel that I'm collaborating in this, he says.
MCCARTHY: The popular program to sell discounted food could be called a victim of its own success.
Ms. ELIMENA SOUZA (Shopper): (Speaking Spanish)
MCCARTHY: Long lines form outside the supermarkets known as Mercals. This mother of three shouts at security guards keeping her waiting for an hour. You are abusers, she tells them, letting the cooperatives go in and out but not us, simply because we are raising our voices.
There are an estimated 12,000 Mercals in Venezuela, selling everything from subsidized sausage to shampoo. One recent survey found that 47 percent of Venezuelans now shop in these stores. Will the protesting Elimena Souza(ph) vote for Chavez?
Ms. SOUZA: (Speaking Spanish)
MCCARTHY: Of course I'll vote for Chavez, she says. He's the president and needs our vote. He's giving us all these benefits and needs our support, she says, so he can keep giving more benefits.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Caracas.
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