Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is lifting the Caracas barrios out of poverty and giving the slums a new kind of meaning.

Photos: Emma Lynch

On his time as the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez's has established a track record of aggressive moves to remedy economic inequality by redistributing the country's considerable oil wealth. Unsurprisingly, this has won him many supporters among the nation's urban poor, perhaps no more so than in the barrios (shantytowns) of Caracas. One of these barrios is named José Félix Ribas; perched on the eastern hillsides of the capital, it is said to be one of the largest altin Latin America. An estimated 120,000 people live here, spread over 96 hectares (237 acres), most of them in rickety houses known as ranchos.

The woman who appeared in failed opposition candidate Manuel Rosales' campaign promoting his main social proposal – the welfare debit card known as Mi Negra – is a local resident. While the opposition's supporters claimed growing discontent with the government, to the expected benefit of Rosales' Un Nuevo Tiempo party, the barrio remained Chávez's heartland in the 2006 presidential elections.

Access to free primary health care and dentistry – through the public health reform program known as Mission Barrio Adentro ("Mission Inside the Barrio") – is one of the most important improvements that the residents of José Félix Ribas say they have experienced under Chávez. Most of the doctors and dentists here are Cubans who have moved to the barrio as part of a deal under which Cuba receives cheap oil from Venezuela.

Many barrio residents get their groceries from the Mercales, government-subsidized shops which sell food – including meat, dairy products, and vegetables – at a considerable discount. Here, a kilo of powdered milk costs just over $2, rather than the $6 price tag found in regular supermarkets.

Food from the Mercales also gets sent to a number of barrio homes in which free meals for up to 150 people are prepared. In these casas de alimentación, small groups of women make lunch and an afternoon snack and pack them into containers for their neighbors. The owner of the house decides the daily menu.

Venezuela is baseball-mad, and José Félix Ribas is no exception. From the age of three, boys start training in "baseball nurseries." For a few, the game can be a way out of poverty, and most people will tell you proudly that there are a hundred Venezuelans playing Major League Baseball in the US.

Dumping is a huge problem in the barrios of Caracas, despite campaigns encouraging people to use the bins provided.

"We have to educate people so they don't just dump their rubbish wherever they feel like it, but it is proving very difficult," says one local leader.

In José Félix Ribas, some neighbors are trying to organize a recycling facility.

If the neighbors want the alleyways that run between their homes to be lit at night, they get together and sort it out. For other projects such as sewers or pavement, they apply for government grants to buy the necessary materials and then do the work themselves.

The stairs that lead to the otherwise inaccessible parts of the barrio have been built by residents, but are often steep, uneven or in bad condition. For older people, children and disabled people, especially for those whose homes are away from the road, it is difficult to get around the barrio.

The people of José Félix Ribas have presented a plan to the government for a cable car that would go from the end of the metro line up into the hills. This, they say while proudly showing off the model they have made, would be a huge boon to their lives. They are confident that their proposal will be approved by Chávez's government, and hope it will enhance safety in the area.

While residents say their lives are slowly getting better, conditions in the barrio are often precarious. Most people here depend on government programs, and many live in very cramped conditions with only basic amenities. Community leaders acknowledge that major problems like crime and the shortage of housing still need to be addressed, but say that for the first time, things are looking up. The president is "working for the people," they say. "We are all missionaries here," one local activist says, in reference to Chávez's social missions.