June 14, 2006

Colombians in Venezuela thank Chavez for new life

By Hugh Bronstein

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Santiago Baron walks past a
free government-run cafeteria on his way to work. Looking up at
a hillside he sees concrete reinforcements being built to stop
houses from tumbling under the rain.

He thinks of the thousands in his native Colombia who lose
their homes in mudslides every wet season due to poor housing
conditions unaddressed by the government.

And he thanks Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the
firebrand socialist accused by Washington of destabilizing
Latin America, for giving him and the rest of this immigrant
community in eastern Caracas a better life.

Baron, 46, and his neighbors are among an estimated 3
million Colombians who in decent decades have crossed the
border into oil-rich Venezuela looking for jobs and sanctuary
from Colombia's 42-year-old guerrilla war.

They are getting fast-track citizenship under a program
called Mission Identity and largely supporting Chavez ahead of
his December re-election bid.

"Look at that!" says Baron, born near the historic
Colombian port city of Cartagena, pointing at the newly paved
street in front of his house and then at the concrete barriers
that will make life safer for his hillside neighbors.

"How am I not going to support Chavez?"


Although precise registration figures were not available,
Venezuelan political analyst Alfredo Anzola estimates between
1.8 million and 2 million Colombians are registered to vote
here. This suggests they could have a big influence in a
country where less than 10 million people voted in the 2004
referendum that consolidated Chavez' mandate.

"These immigrants are benefiting from the medical,
nutrition and other programs offered by Chavez. So, yes, they
tend to vote for him," Anzola said. "Voter registration
increased by about 2 million ahead of the referendum and a big
chunk of those new voters were people who did not have
Venezuelan citizenship six months earlier."

The opposition accuses Chavez of padding the voter
registration rolls with Colombians and other immigrants who are
not legal citizens, a charge the government dismisses.

First elected in 1998, after going to jail for leading a
failed coup six years earlier, Chavez has tightened his grip on
power. Lawmakers loyal to him control Congress and critics say
he has stacked the Supreme Court and the country's election
council with his cronies.

Chavez has suggested doing away with presidential term
limits. Colombian immigrants interviewed by Reuters said they
will use their votes to help him stay in power.

"Single, unemployed mothers have a place to go for help
here. In Colombia we had nothing like that," said Zenit
Valiente, 53, who hails from Colombia's northern coast.

"That is the guarantee that Chavez is giving to the
Colombians," she said. "He is giving us support in exchange for
our support."

Economists argue that Chavez' subsidies, while popular,
could cripple the economy when the price of oil falls.


Wilfredo Carmona, 25, got here two months ago from
Colombia, where he said the war, which kills thousands every
year, made it hard to find work.

"I was trained to be a diesel mechanic but there were no
jobs in Colombia," he said. "Now I'm a construction worker."

Across the street from Carmona's work site is a small
market where 42-year-old Freddy Berrio, from the northern
Colombian province of Sucre, sells soda and snacks. He opened
the business with a low-interest government loan.

"Colombia needs a leader like Chavez to end the social and
political exclusion there," he said.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, popular for reducing
urban crime as part of his U.S.-backed crackdown on
drug-running insurgents, easily won re-election last month.

But opposition criticism that he is not spending enough on
social programs could grow louder during his second term.

"People may ask more from Uribe, not just on security
issues but in terms of general well being," said Cynthia
Arnson, Latin America expert at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center in Washington.

Chavez is meanwhile sending a clear message to Colombians
looking for something better.

"As opposed to what the United States is doing, we are
giving them documents and now they have equal rights," Chavez
said recently. "The United States is building a wall (to keep
immigrants out). We are opening our arms."