Saturday, December 06, 2008

Caracas: 10 Years of Revolution

“It still smells of sulphur around here!” Hugo Chavez’s dramatic voice reverberates around our pick-up jeep. Jorge R. is driving but answers his mobile and the rest of us grin. Mr. Chavez’ grand repertoire of sound-bites are very popular here, this ringtone was a rap remix of the wisecrack he made about George W Bush from the UN pulpit. “You can download him singing, giving speeches, almost anything” Jorge assures me as we drive deep into Caracas’ ranchos or barrios (the shantytowns also known as favelas in Brazil) comprising over half the capital’s population and some of the most hazardous neighbourhoods in the world. Or perhaps President Hugo was referring to the acrid aftermath of the gun battles that now plague areas such as these in this vertiginous South American capital.

Jorge looks the part in his red hat and t-shirt, embroidered with the slogan Ahora Venezuela es de Todos (roughly: Now Venezuela is For Everybody). I ask him what if his phone rang while he was in the designer, ultra-posh Centro San Ignacio? He shrugs confidently, “It’s a free country”. With 95% of the media in opposition, Jorge makes his point. “I’m sure they [the opposition] have King Juan Carlos of Spain’s ‘why don’t you just shut up!’” he smiles, and we all laugh at the memory. “People actually ran into the street to celebrate that,” he admits. An amusing anecdote from a city now used to massive demonstrations. Polarization and funny ringtones, Venezuela today could be characterized by this.

With shifting balances of power, ideological evolution in the US and new global rules for finance due to be drawn up, busy months of meetings lie ahead for the G20 states. For many, that Hugo Chavez will not be present is a great pity and to scores more a great relief. In throwing its own alternative into the geopolitical arena, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has become a central figure in Latin American politics but at a cost: it has suffered a bitter domestic “divorce,” the repercussions of which continue to fester. As with any rupture, there are two sides to every story. I have come to hear both.

We pull our jeep up in a cul-de-sac of the San Juan barrio beside a new clinic, the elevation grants us spectacular views of the valley that is Caracas. I’m spending the day with four bright young people from the Corazon Adentro Misión Socialista (Heart Inside Socialist Mission). Their vision is to engage citizens in collective combat against inequality by developing culture as a force for socialist change, also to give the underprivileged an outlet for their creative talents. It is a permanent, ongoing program with cultural events or “happenings” occurring throughout the city 365 days of the year, with a special focus on the ranchos. It is 0930 on Saturday and the barrio is sunny and calm, belying its reputation as one of the “harder” slums. I ask Xiomara C. what does she mean, though “hard” is often self-explanatory.

“We can’t get in up there,” she say’s pointing up to not far from where we stand. I pick out a group of young men watching us from one of the shadowy, serpentine stairs that define the barrio. “It’s ‘controlled’ by gangs, last week one of our team was intercepted by armed youths, they didn’t hurt her but menacingly told her to go away. This red shirt is worth something,” she grins “we do get the respect of some gangs and on occasion they afford us their ‘protection’” She confirms this “protection” is not a pseudonym. On one occasion a spectator was shot dead during an act as he stood amongst the children, but such events are rare. “Many of the youngsters have kids too and appreciate what we’re doing. We’ll get in up there eventually,” she adds with a determined smile. Xiomara works mainly in Petare, situated to the east of the city: it is Latin America’s most populous shanty-town with almost a million inhabitants and made up of over 380 distinct barrios.

“Wake up!” shouts a local volunteer through a megaphone to the breeze-block houses crammed all around us, “come see the clowns and jugglers, there’s a magician coming too, get up before the rains hit,” she bellows out. At the far end of the valley dark clouds are gathering, pushing our way. Under an unforgiving sun we tidy up a disused basketball court and carry chairs down many steps for the audience we hope will show. With weed whackers in hand, others clear a green space and the nurses sweep out an old dressing-room.

“When the mothers bring their kids down for the spectacle, we give vaccinations to those who haven’t yet got them,” says Jorge, and he asks me if I’ve had mine. “The Revolution has reduced infant mortality a great deal in ten years,” he adds proudly (18.2% decrease from 1998-2006). The jabs are for hepatitis, polio and tetanus. There is a respectable turnout of women and kids and thankfully the tropical thunderstorm headed our way defies all logic and veers away. Xiomara winks and says she had a word with the man upstairs. I consider making a joke about the Chavez controlling the weather, but I know better, if he did he have these ranchos too. On our way out, San Juan has woken up and there are groups of young men drinking beer out in the narrow streets, it is noon and Ivan E. makes a comment of concern.

Pressing on, we cross western Caracas’s never-ending expanse of extemporized housing, reaching close to the clouds and passing through a “Colombian” rancho of dire poverty. The shockingly flimsy abodes are surrounded by debris and rubbish, yet the vivid hillside vegetation is stunning, tropical flowers and lush grasses provide another contrast in this city of extremes. There is unusual quiet in the jeep as we roll gently by; the only building of note is an army outpost with the soldiers safely grouped together on the veranda clutching automatic rifles. They recognise the jeep, our team’s red shirts and give us an imperceptible nod.

I almost ask Ivan what makes it Colombian around here but stop short; I know “Colombian” and “illegal” are synonymous here. As if reading my mind, he volunteers, “They have buses coming from Colombia that don’t even mention Caracas anymore on the destination, nowadays they specify the barrios.” Immigration has been an issue here since the 50’s when millions of hopeful workers began to pour in and the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ was born. Ivan reckons the population has grown by two million since 1998; most have landed here in the ranchos.

Crossing the Caracas fault line with its seismically wrinkled topography we finally arrive at the aptly named Barrio Nuevo Horizonte. I am transfixed by some breathtaking views and a rainbow arching the new highway viaduct far below. Only up here in the hills have I seen kids running around being kids, an often perilous luxury (stray bullets often hit children) denied those back in the city. We are given a warm welcome by the locals and the staffers of the tiny community centre. We are served some delicious chupe, though I am not enjoying it. My concern is that there is nothing to stop the six young men eyeing me from the steep alleyway outside from “express” kidnapping me or worse. This is a new phenomenon down in the city, people are grabbed from cars, doorsteps or wherever and then the ransom call comes. 80% of the 450 reported cases since January were resolved though the police generally get informed after the fact. A child pushes a visitor’s book under my nose and suddenly this small act banishes all my fears, I sign and look up. The ‘Revolution” are watching me with a clear and steadfast regard, I can see there is pride here in the barrio. This dramatic change of consciousness is what has shaped the last decade for the people of Venezuela.

The Cuban musicians show up and play to a small crowd of women and children. Many more listen from the windows around and above. The band wraps up with Chan Chan just as dusk beckons and the rancho magically transforms into a coruscating wonderland of lights.

“Such a nice change from the sounds of gunfire,” a mother says, leading her children away. Like most of the Ministry workers with us, Xiomara is from a tough barrio. She explains to me why there are long metal tubes lined up against the houses. “We’re improving the sewage system, until now it’s been largely improvised,” she adds pointing to a stack of cement bags. “A lot of stairs have been repaired.” This barrio retrofit is done in conjunction with the locals who lend a hand with their not inconsiderable DIY expertise. “It’s about generating barrio culture, empowerment and avoiding the handout mentality. We build the future together” she says proudly but her smile quickly vanishes “if all this was to end…” she trails off.

December 6, 2008 will mark a decade since Hugo Chavez swept to power in a landslide democratic victory. Much has since been documented about this socialist icon, the truth no doubt generously interspersed with innuendo, propaganda and hidden agendas. Having lived in Venezuela from ’94-’98 it seemed a logical moment to return to Caracas, take stock and analyse what has happened in the intervening years. History tells us they have been eventful years indeed: 12 elections and one defeat for the Bolivarian Republic, a new constitution, catastrophic mudslides, a failed coup, huge oil revenues to leverage sweeping reforms and an overwhelming tide of immigration into the capital. Externally, China had become a major player in the oil stakes, ready and willing to gain on any trade deal that might be the US’ loss.

Recalling briefly the period ’94, from Chavez’ release from jail (for a failed coup against president C.A. Perez in ‘92) to ’98, we can find a paradise in social, political and economic meltdown. Perez wound up under house arrest (corruption), the incumbent presided over a coalition of 17 parties/independents and the IMF was called in to bail out the banks. Chronic Poverty reached new depths and capital flowed out of the country. Pepsi changed to Coke overnight and homicide stats went from the usual morbid to outright horrific. The oligarchs and expats who managed to reconcile living in this near-anarchy could still have a splendid time in amongst the contrasts. Caracas’ pricey restaurants and chic nightspots rivalled the best in Europe, stunning beaches, pristine jungles, Andean idyll and the ancient Tepuys more than made up for the lack of cultural offerings. Most of these jewels lay beyond the financial reach of the average working Venezuelan. In the cities student riots became so regular that Tuesdays became known as Revolution Day. Fatalism had reached such a nadir that jokes such as to be shot for a pair of Nike’s was considered a natural death, appeared on the front pages of national newspapers. At least the famed Caraqueño sense of humour seemed bulletproof.

The first thing that struck me upon my return to Caracas was the traffic. What was once daunting is now epic: a relentless cacophony of horns, engines and alarms combine to provide a wearying soundtrack to a city that is under siege to the automobile. The gleaming cable car being built into the San Augustine barrio looks impressive but it’s not operational yet. One get’s the feeling that if this urban nightmare is not resolved soon, the tenuous link with normality could be broken altogether. The skyline reflects a building boom with many new commercial centres amongst the high rises, including the posh Centro San Ignacio and Centro Sambil. The leafy Las Mercedes neighbourhood now boasts huge car showrooms along its gridlocked avenues and as ever, cutting edge boutiques and bars down the side streets.

Someone has been spending money.

The temples of consumption bear testament to the near decade long windfall of petrodollars and the increase in variety is significant. However, money spenders will notice tucked in amongst the shops are the ubiquitous Bolivarian labour rights offices, a powerful psychological reminder of change. Government murals with red silhouettes of the president proclaiming the value of unity through hard work can be seen from the ranchos to the city proper. Grand murals from the SENIAT (Integrated Customs Administration and Tax Services) remind citizens of the importance of paying taxes, the function of taxation and employers are reminded of their statutory obligations, unthinkable a decade ago. This major shift away from the US influenced ideology to a more European-like system of free education, health and social services with national insurance is the bedrock of the Bolivarian Republic. Passing a once famous Italian restaurant I remark how it must have fallen by the wayside to Paco, a Galician immigrant from the fifties. “Not at all,” he says, “they were shut down for not respecting workers rights!”

Caracas and politics are inseparable. When canvassing opinions about the Bolivarian government the response is swift; issues uttered first off are corruption and insecurity. To imagine a government without corruption in a continent where it is endemic might be stretching the imagination, but this was one of Chavez’ great promises, tackling graft and delinquency. Left wing pilfering always seems worse than when the right caves into allurement but there is no doubt this matter wounds the president’s reputation deeply. Whilst the party faithful will dispute allegations of venality, there is almost universal agreement about El Hampa (insecurity).

“It’s true there have been big changes in ten years…,” Omar, 35, a taxi driver from Petare tells me with a smile, “…our kids get three meals a day in school, some groceries are subsidised and I can get a local doctor (Cuban) if my boy gets a sore tummy, but it’s not enough. Things have gotten too dangerous, we often block the road with our cars to protest the murders of our colleagues, it’s very bad”. Omar’s sentiments are echoed by many others. In last week’s municipal elections the opposition candidate in Petare scored a win right in the Revolution’s heartland, down in part to frustration with incomplete and unfulfilled promises, but mainly safety. Over the past fifteen years violent crime has become ingrained in the psyche of Caraqueños. In the upmarket enclaves electric fences are now an ugly accessory atop the spiked railings once deemed sufficient and private security is still big business. “It’s a source of deep stress,” says Eduardo P., 45, who fits coffee machines and fridges for cafés and bars. “You get stuck in traffic for hours and worry about getting home too late, before the malandros (thugs) set out, though in reality, you could get hit anywhere, anytime.”

But Eduardo is not all critical. “You have to recognise the good things Chavez has done, he’s had great ideas. Millions have overcome their illiteracy thanks to the Robinson Mission, my brother got a national bank loan for his goat cheese farm down on the coast, he’d never have got that before.” I ask him why he’s anti-Chavista then. “I think he’s lost the plot, you know…,” he winks. “Back in ’98 he had a golden opportunity, he should have engaged the opposition not alienate them, and many of his people are opportunist and corrupt, who do you think goes to all these new shops? I don’t know about him but the others…” Eduardo went on to compare the Chavez entourage to the oligarchs of the past and indulged in some salacious rumours before ending with “when Chavez is gone the positive aspects of his time will have to be continued, we expect that from the opposition, we’ll even improve on them. He’s been a very important phase in this country’s development.”

Adolfo B. who voted “red” in ’98 is a professor of economics at a private university in Caracas, evokes harsh condemnation. “The importance of private institutions has been eroded; unilateral action of fundamental economic matters is being taken with neither expertise nor experience. Most of our capable people have been driven out and inefficiency is rife in the government.” He is clearly exasperated: “He seems more concerned with trivial stuff like changing the shield on the flag because Bolivar’s horse used to veer to the right, now it goes to the left. Now we celebrate Indigenous Resistance Day instead of the 1492 landings (el Día de la Raza). Too much symbolism, he’s only interested in holding onto power.” I ask him if he thinks the president will hang on until 2013 when his mandate expires; he shrugs and admits it’s a long shot. “The people are eating their savings, petroleum infrastructure is failing and oil prices are dropping, inflation is around 35% and we still import most our food. We’re in a pressure cooker.”

Bearing in mind the current global financial crisis bewailing the West, perhaps judging a developing country socialist or not, by its current macroeconomic success might seem unfair. Nevertheless, a quick glance some figures is helpful. Thanks to oil, the Venezuelan GDP rose from 85.8 billion USD ’97 to 184.5 billion USD in 2007. Real income increased by 137% from 2003-07 and though the poor are living better, problems such as housing and social mobility remain.

I did not visit the interior so I cannot speak of any infrastructural progress or agrarian reforms.

The scale of the challenge facing the Bolivarian Revolution back in ’98 left no illusions, a decade later both the opposition and pro-Chavez groups can point to failures and successes. The ramifications of last weekend’s local elections will be critical for Hugo Chavez, whether he can ride the challenge of a reinvigorated and young opposition (or how they will react to his recurring proposal to expand presidential term limits), time will tell. The scourge of drugs threatens to undo the successes in the barrios and Caracas’ urban chaos is a genuine environmental emergency.

Ultimately the most durable legacy of this period will lie in the sweeping social reforms and the eradication of a once blanket indifference towards the neglected majority. That may yet be an example, not just to developing countries but to the crisis-hit wealthier nations of the world at large.

Ian Swan is a Barcelona based Irish writer who lived in Venezuela from 1993-98. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Ian.

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