CARACAS, Dec 10 (Reuters) - Packing potatoes at his vegetable stand on a sun-baked street in Caracas’s hillside Catia slum, Jesus Jimenez fondly recounts voting for late president Hugo Chavez.
Like millions in Venezuela’s poor “barrios,” the chatty father of 14 worshipped the larger-than-life Chavez and benefited from his welfare programs, especially Cuban-staffed free health centers and substantial pension rises.
So after Chavez’s death last year, Jimenez naturally voted for the leader’s hand-picked protege Nicolas Maduro, a former union activist and bus driver who vowed to continue the idiosyncratic brand of socialism known as “Chavismo”.
Now, though, he struggles to make ends meet as inflation running at over 60 percent eats into his meager income and he spends hours in lines to buy scarce flour or medicines.
Furious, he says he would readily protest against Maduro.
“Never in my 56 years of life have I seen the country like this. I‘m never voting for this government again,” he grumbles as motorbikes zip up the steep street and shoppers mill around.
“I don’t have a life anymore. Everything is a queue,” the raspy-voiced vendor adds, knotting bags of potatoes.
Increasing numbers of low-income Venezuelans are souring on Maduro as they suffer a declining economy, the highest inflation in the Americas, chronic shortages of basic goods and one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Swelling frustration in the tough slums dotting Caracas’s rolling hills means Maduro is much more vulnerable, especially as oil prices fall to around five-year lows.
These were the neighborhoods that provided the most loyal backing to Chavez during his 14-year rule, voting for him over and over again and taking to the streets to help return him to office during a brief coup in 2002.
Maduro’s popularity is falling fast, there are more signs of dissent inside his ruling party and he could be embarrassed at legislative elections next year if voters in former “Chavista” strongholds abandon him.
He could even be ousted in 2016 if the opposition manages to promote a recall referendum and attract enough disillusioned “Chavistas”.
To be sure, many slum residents despise opposition leaders and the state still runs subsidized supermarkets, medical centers and education programs.
But stores are increasingly low on stocks. Women clutching babies often dash out to buy diapers and detergent, currently two of the most coveted products, whenever they hear some have arrived.
Meanwhile, many of the signature “Inside the Barrio” medical outposts are closed or lack adequate equipment.
Currency controls have fomented a black market where dollars now fetch over 27 times the strongest official exchange rate, hitting imports of basic goods.
Wealthier Venezuelans dodge the long waits by hiring people to shop for them, buying goods abroad, turning to high-end stores or simply leaving the country.
The poor have few such options, so in once zealously pro-government heartlands, the tide appears to be turning as never before.
Only 24.5 percent of Venezuelans approved of Maduro in November, down from 50.6 percent at the start of his government, according to leading local pollster Datanalisis. Just around 16 percent of Venezuelans identified with the ruling party in July and November, the lowest levels in over a decade.
In Maduro’s favor, however, a fractured opposition has failed to capitalize on the disgruntlement so disaffected “Chavistas” may be more likely to abstain than switch sides.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles did win over voters during his two presidential campaigns, but a lot were turned off again by what they deemed useless and destructive street protests led by radical opponents earlier this year.
While there is no sign major unrest will kick off again, there has been a smattering of isolated protests against shortages, electricity cuts and crime, chiefly in provincial towns and smuggling-rife areas near the Colombian border.
The ruling Socialist Party, or PSUV, is showing signs of strain. One dissident wing, Socialist Tide, berates Maduro daily for betraying Chavez’s legacy and letting corruption flourish, and appears on the verge of expulsion or breakaway.
Maduro insists “Chavistas” are still the majority though he admits to problems and has urged unity in tackling them. The government tries to demonize the opposition and depicts pre-Chavez Venezuela as a living hell for the poor.
Withdrawing support for the PSUV is a painful decision for many who felt a spiritual connection with the messianic Chavez.
Marisol Aponte, a community organizer in the roughly 8,000 strong Cacique Tiuna showpiece “socialist city” on a hill overlooking Caracas, is about as “Chavista” as they come - but even she is having doubts.
“When Chavez died I felt like my father had died,” says Aponte, a mother of seven. “I was left with an uncle who doesn’t listen to me the same way.”
She complains of “stagnation” at Cacique Tiuna: residents don’t do their share of communal work, there are problems of internal tensions and domestic violence, and community projects are not receiving much major new funding.
But while Aponte considers herself more “centrist” than before, she cannot bring herself to vote against Maduro.
“It would be like betraying myself.”
Next door, dance teacher Estilita Fernandez is exhausted from waking at 3 a.m. to commute to a job she says doesn’t pay her enough to get by, and then queuing up for food on weekends.
“It’s one thing to love the revolution, but we have to eat,” she says at the Cacique Tiuna school.
But for all her complaints, she says she will not vote against Maduro. “If the government is pushed out, maybe we will be too.”
Many see opposition leaders as a pampered elite intent on slashing the popular social programs that sharply cut poverty levels in the Chavez years.
The recent collapse in oil prices is worsening Venezuela’s cash crunch and apparent recession but Maduro is reluctant to make any policy changes that could spark unrest or criticism he is straying from socialist ideals.
Blaming the problems on an “economic war” waged by a local elite and their “imperial” allies, officials shut down shops on allegations of hoarding and overcharging customers.
Some Chavistas seem dumbfounded by the economic downturn.
Gladys Moncada, an employee at a lamp store in Catia, supported Chavez for his social policies, including improving her blind mother’s pension.
”I was a fervent “Chavista,” she said in the store, which is selling lamps from its stock because it no longer receives imports. “I wish I could say I still am but the situation is too hard. Everything is going backwards.”
Groceries eat up to half of her minimum wage salary, equal to $776 dollars at the strongest official currency rate but just around $27 dollars on the black market.
Moncada is taking out loans and selling ice cream and bracelets to survive. She has stopped buying clothes, housing appliances and certain pricey fruits and vegetables.
Recently, her brother-in-law was murdered. Fed up, Moncada now says she too would protest against Maduro.
Back at the vegetable stand, Jimenez echoes what many Venezuelans are saying: the situation is unsustainable.
“This is going to explode one day. When? I don’t know.” (Reporting and writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Corina Pons; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)