On the contours of the Cordillera de la Costa, the mountain range that dominates the view around the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, sit the precariously balanced slums — barrios known as los ranchos — that have long been the heart of President Hugo Chávez’s political base. One barrio in particular, known as Catia, has been an election bellwether since 1998, when Chávez swept to power as a populist revolutionary figure. Now, as support for el Presidente begins to diminish in a neighborhood whose residents once banged on pots and pans to celebrate his arrival on the political scene in the early 1990s, the hugely popular strongman appears susceptible to defeat in the Oct. 7 presidential election.
Chávez’s opponent is a young centrist called Henrique Capriles Radonski, whom observers regard as the most serious challenger to Chávez since he first took office in 1999. Chávez may increasingly look like a caricature of his former self — a stubborn, leftist leader who rails against the U.S. — but he nevertheless remains a figure of enormous importance in the region. He spearheaded the creation of today’s anti-imperialist, left-leaning bloc in Latin America, and his departure would mean the loss of a key ally for leftist governments in countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia.
The residents of Catia, however, have more local concerns, says Tim Padgett, TIME’s Latin America correspondent. Their grievances are with the very real problems they face in their everyday lives. Chief among these is crime; on average, 50 homicides occur per week in Caracas.
Padgett, who has a long personal connection with Venezuela, recently visited Catia — where he once worked — to report on the shifting mind-set of Chávez’s formerly loyal supporters for his magazine story (available to subscribers here). TIME spoke with Padgett to get the story behind the story.
Why does the presidential election in Venezuela on Oct. 7 matter?
I get a lot of flak in Miami, where I live and whose mostly Cuban Latino population is very anti-communist, when I give Chávez his due. He has reduced poverty in Venezuela, and he’s empowered the poor there in many ways. And he is important in that he did change the conversation about economic policy in Latin America at a time when it needed to be changed. He’s a left-wing socialist, but he helped open the door for more-moderate leftists, like former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to pursue a third way that puts more emphasis on encouraging a mix of social-welfare capitalism.
But his political expiration date seems to have come and gone. He was losing people’s enthusiasm for the revolution before the cancer he’s battling was discovered last year. What struck me most was the economic and political malaise that has now sunk in in Venezuela. Many people just say, “Estoy harto” — “I’m fed up.”
When did you realize that Chávez might lose?
He is still the favorite to win, no doubt. But in some barrio strongholds like Catia, there’s been a trend in the past five or six years of shrinking support for him. I think, when he started a decade ago, his support in poorer pockets like that was very high, but his share of the vote dropped to less than 55% in Catia in the 2010 parliamentary election, and that trend could continue next month.
What do you think will happen if he does lose?
There is an unfortunate potential for violence if he were to lose, for a number of reasons. First, he’s created a mind-set among supporters that his revolution is the only possible vehicle for governance in Venezuela. He is stoking this idea of him losing as an impossibility and that if he does, it would be for nefarious reasons, which could lead to unrest.
Second, if it’s a close election, even though international observers recognize the Venezuela election process to be transparent, it heightens the potential for shenanigans with the vote, on both sides. That could lead to violence by supporters of Capriles as well, some of whom have been claiming the election will be fraudulent, even though Capriles himself doesn’t agree with that. But if Capriles were to win, there could also be potential for violence with the military. The Defense Minister was quoted last year as saying they may not recognize [a Capriles] victory.
When did you first begin to hear about Capriles?
I first covered him in 2002 after opposition leaders tried a failed coup against Chávez, which Capriles insists he didn’t support. (Chavez insists he did.) He is one of — and this is crucial — the first opposition leaders to understand that Chávez came to power 14 years ago for a reason, especially the ruling class’s epic oil-wealth corruption and the inexcusable poverty it had helped create for most Venezuelans. For too long there’s been an attitude among the elite that Chávez came out of nowhere, that he’s this monster that came down from the mountains. If Chávez is their Frankenstein, then they created him, and Capriles seems to understand this.
Why did you go to Venezuela in the 1980s?
In 1985, I went to Venezuela to study on a graduate journalism scholarship program at la Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas. I wanted to improve my Spanish, learn about Latin American history and so on. When you live in Caracas, it’s hard not to notice the hillside slums. I found out about one of the foundations that funded schools for kids there and heard that they were always looking for English and history teachers. I spent a year doing that, teaching and volunteering there. I actually met my wife, who is Venezuelan, in Caracas; we had a few classes together. I’ve been covering Venezuela ever since, and it’s a place I come back to often.
What would you say the political journey has been of the people you met there in Catia?
I became good friends with one family whose daughter I was teaching — this smart little 9-year-old girl named Norka Lugo. She is one of the brightest people I have ever met; she absorbed English like a sponge. I got to know her and her family very well. One of the things I learned from them is that people like them are not as ideologically leftist as Chávez and others assume they are.
Most of these people were like Chávez; they migrated to Caracas from provinces like the central plains, known as los llanos. The llanero, or cowboy, mentality can be very defiant down there. It’s a culture of standing up to authority and being skeptical of it, which does not dovetail very well with ideology.
While people in places like Catia were very glad to see him overthrow the elite and bring improvements to the barrio, many were not as socialist as he assumed they were. Many don’t share his vision of the revolution anymore; they want to see broader results.
You write that Chávez has set up local militias to defend against the U.S. imperialist invasion. What do they look like?
There was a picture which came out earlier this year from the 23 de Enero [January 23] barrio. It’s a fairly disgusting picture showing kids in one of the militia T-shirts holding AK-47s and bandanas over their faces. These were just kids, there were adults standing to the side encouraging them. Even Chávez criticized it.
You’ve also interviewed Chávez at various points. How have your impressions of him changed over time?
I have interviewed him at least four times since he led a failed coup in 1992 as an army officer. You can tell how he changed over that time. When I first interviewed him after he was let out of jail in 1994, he realized that if you need power you couldn’t do it by coup, you had to go through a mainstream electoral process. In ’98, when he first ran for President, he understood the need to be more moderate; but by 2002, after the failed coup against him, there was a certain bitterness there. You could see him turning hard left again. In 2006, the last time I spoke to him, as rising oil prices were giving him more power at home and abroad, he was turning even harder left. The quote I have in the story is from that time. He wouldn’t even acknowledge the success of moderate leftists or that there could be a third way.