Chavez Support Strong on the Ground in Poor Caracas Neighborhood

While the presidents of the United States and Venezuela were courting support and trading barbs during their separate forays through Latin America this week, the people of Santa Cruz del Este in Caracas quietly celebrated the fruits of their lives under Hugo Chavez: running water, functioning schools and paved streets.

This barrio, where residents once carted pails of water to their homes over rutted pathways, has been transformed by Chavez initiatives. Its children are scrubbed and schooled, its adults better fed and more employed. Community leaders and ordinary residents discussed their lives this week with a team from ABC News led by Barbara Walters.

We picked this particular barrio to visit -- it was not suggested by the government -- but the people here seemed much more positive about Chavez's leadership than those we met in more affluent sections of the city.

Santa Cruz del Este is not a typical neighborhood by any yardstick: the community is well organized, well led and very well connected politically. It is also relatively safe; the crime rate, for instance, is lower than many areas in this beleaguered city.

Violent crime in Caracas -- homicides, assaults, even kidnappings -- are so rampant that embarrassed law enforcement agencies stopped issuing crime statistics in 2003.

The community is cohesive and, in a sense, self-policing: "Neighbors watch out for one another," as one resident put it.

Walters, who came to the barrio in preparation for an interview with Chavez, visited with 45-year-old Gladys Garcia in the cramped but immaculate apartment she shares with her mother and her brother. "Before Chavez, we did not have water," Garcia told Walters, "now we can do our laundry."

"Did you have toilets?" Walters asked.

"Yes," Garcia said, "but we had to carry the water up the stairs. I have seen a lot of changes with President Chavez: fixing houses, roads, trains, improving the dignity of our community."

The Chavez government deals with the neighborhood organization directly, bypassing municipal middlemen, and the residents are motivated to watch expenditures carefully. A recent government grant intended for 50 street repairs, for example, was stretched to cover twice that many.

"The politicians in the past never cared about service," said Jose Gregorio Cedeno, president of the neighborhood's community council.

"They haven't answered the needs here," he told Walters through an interpreter. "A good example of that is the running water."

Doris Seren, a preschool teacher, works with Cedeno on the community council. "Basically, I am like many women in Latin America. I take care of children in my house, and then when the project for running water came, I just became curious and start to get involved," she said. She learned plumbing in the process, and helped install the new pipes.

"How have the lives of women changed since Mr. Chavez?" Walters asked.

"Totally," said Seren, who is 41 years old. "Now we have insurance, and Social Security in Venezuela now includes women even if they work at home. So, they get the benefit regardless of the fact that they don't work on a steady job."

There were a few naysayers in Santa Cruz del Este, residents less enthusiastic about Chavez and his policies, but they didn't want to speak on the record.

The pro-Chavez sentiment in this barrio is pervasive, and provides a window on the attraction of Chavez's policies to those in Latin America who have felt left out or left behind.

In Santa Cruz del Este, at least, there was no contest this week between George Bush and Chavez.

The people here had already picked their winner.