Skip to comments.Life in Caracas
Posted on 03/29/2006 5:05:54 PM PST by proud_yank
Caracas, while home to nearly a fifth of Venezuela’s 26 million inhabitants, is a city so poorly conceived in design that it appears to have sprung up from the ground, without warning, overnight. Nestled in a long and narrow valley, it is a tangled urban agglomeration of towering skyscrapers, cluttered streets, curving highways, world-famous shopping malls, and of course, ranchos that blanket the hills surrounding the city, covering every inch of exposed land as if they were fighting for daylight.
Stacked haphazardly on top of each other, the red cinder block and tin-roof dwellings of the ranchos can be seen from the valley floor, serving as a constant reminder of the harsh reality that many buying Versace or Polo in the air-conditioned cool of a mall try to forget, but are forced to acknowledge upon leaving; que peligroso (how dangerous) they’ll say, glancing fearfully at the hills, adding even que feo (how ugly). They'll show you the golf course too, the golf course and country club in the middle of the city that Chávez is trying to take away. He would take away our golf course! They'll say, with the indignation of a child who hears the word no for the first time.
The division between rich and poor is even more blatant in Caracas than in other parts of the country; consecutive city blocks often alternate between these two constituencies, and on many streets, bright and modern apartment buildings, circled by tall electric fences, stand in stark contrast to much smaller, crumbling brick buildings which surround them.
Yet in parts of Caracas, it is also deceptively easy to forget the fact that more than half of the people in Venezuela live in poverty, and that a quarter of the population lacks the means to eat adequately. In a shopping mall in Caracas, one could be in any wealthy region of the world; unabashedly extravagant, they are filled with the global chains of the world’s upper class- designer clothes, first-rate electronics, and endless shoe stores on par with any upscale mall in the United States. These malls are located in neighborhoods of BMW dealerships, “American” styled and themed bars, and areas where it is possible, even preferable, to pay for apartments in dollars. It is hard to believe that such contradictions could simultaneously exist in such close proximity, with such scarce middle ground.
Eating at one of the slick restaurants or glamorous bars of Las Mercedes, one could easily be in Los Angeles, and the similarities between the two cities are frightening; the blatant discrepancy between classes, the complete ill-conception and lack of planning, and the flaunting of wealth and almost psychotic emphasis on material goods and beauty. There were even mass riots of the poor in Caracas in 1989, called El Caracazo, which seemed to frighten the wealthy caraqueños perpetually, to a similar effect that the Rodney King riots had on the citizens of Los Angeles. And then there are the malls.
The wealthy in Caracas seem to embrace this retreat into irreality, flocking in hordes to lavish shopping malls, where some spend all day perusing the designer outlets, paying American prices to eat at American chains like TGIF and Cinnabon, listening to the American pop music that is piped into the cool air. These are the places they will recommend to you if you ask them where to visit in Caracas, these are what make Caracas the best city, they 'll say, if not in Venezuela, then the world.
Never mind the fact that you can get a good meal for a fraction of the price outside or that you could probably take a vacation here for the same amount of money spent in an afternoon at the mall. Maybe the outside world really does disappear the moment one enters a mall; how could poverty exist side by side with such profusion of wealth?
2. The other side of the coin
Boasting one of the highest murder rates on the continent, Caracas is an undeniably dangerous city. Upper-class neighborhoods surrounded by heavily-fortified walls and guard stations give some areas of Caracas the appearance of a war zone, and it is generally accepted that one does not walk around the city at night, with the exception of a few small areas in the wealthiest districts, conveniently surrounding the upper-echelon malls. Yet the ever-present paranoia of the upper-class in Caracas is almost more palpable than the danger here; I could not count the number of times that I was told to be careful in Caracas, and cautioned that Caracas is peligrosisimo, and sucio too, deemed by many not even worth visiting because of this.
The small hotel I stayed at was located in an area called La Candelaria, a busy neighborhood near the central district of the city. Contrary to what I had been told, the area compromising the center and capital of the city was by far the most interesting part of the city. The streets surrounding Plaza Bolívar teemed with action during the day, alive with street vendors who covered the sidewalk for blocks on end, selling clothes, food, used books, household items, and pirated CDs to the masses of people who passed hurriedly by. This was dense urban living at its finest: the currents of people, the noise and smog, the movement on every street and corner, the hustle and struggle of everybody moving to the chaotic clockwork of modern city life.
In what appeared to be an impromptu speech, a man talked loudly about the virtues of the revolution into a microphone set up in Plaza Bolívar to the sparse crowd gathered there it seemed for other reasons, some restlessly tossing popcorn at pigeons, others nodding off on the benches around the huge statue of Simon Bolívar. A man gave me a “No a la Guerra!” sticker as I sat down. In Caracas political graffiti is everywhere, large government posters hang from office buildings showing giant profiles of Chávez, and a few beautiful murals cover the city’s walls.
A few blocks from the center, El Capitolio is the district where the National Assembly meets, where the building that houses the Supreme Court is under renovation, and where El Palacio Miraflores, the presidential palace is located. Palacio Miraflores, the site of the 2002 coup in which Chávez was removed from office for roughly 48 hours, sits on streets that are blockaded on all ends, streets that you are now forbidden from even walking down.
Caracas is a place that feels like it is at war with itself; fighting between two extremes, the city burns with conflict. Chávez clearly has his support in those who believe he can narrow the immense gap between those who reside in tall apartment buildings of Altamira and those who can only watch from their hillside shanties, but despite the programs, initiatives, the constant talk and emphasis, the task remains as necessary as the distance formidable.
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Well, to answer your question, this is all changed under socialism so that the current ruling class is dispossessed of this socially unjust distribution of material goods, and the new ruling class becomes the beneficiary of an equally unjust distribution of material goods. The common people for whose ostensible benefit the whole con game works end up poorer than before and with less opportunity and the new bosses tell them it's utopia and promptly wall them into it with barbed wire and machine-gun towers. Viva la revolucion!
Viva la France!
Hugo Chavez, unfortunately, is not really anything new in Venezuela. On the contrary, he is more of the same, only a higher dosage.
Venezuela's default political philosophy is a kind of populism that sometimes manifests itself in military governments, sometimes socialist democracies, and sometimes a mixture of the two as now.
The biggest difference with Chavez is that he is openly anti-American, whereas most previous governments have been just as openly pro-American. Consequently, for us he is a new problem. But in terms of Venezuelans he is a throwback to the corrupt thugocracies of other times and other places.
He survives by promising what he can't deliver, and then blaming foreign banks for his inability to deliver. Nothing particularly new there. Its just that we and they might have thought those days were long past. But they are back with a vengeance.
In a corrupt country, socialist or not, it is difficult to survive and prosper without contacts in high places to mitigate the risk, someone to call when you are caught in some irrational legal bind. Consequently, people come to believe that if you have money, you must be corrupt. From this springs the virulent populism that a fellow like Chavez can harness.
The fact is that Venezuela is more lawless, more corrupt, and measurably poorer under Chavez than it was prior to his appearance on the scene back in the early nineties. His original coup attempt was very popular among the masses, and subsequent presidents tried to tap into that sentiment by "decreeing" prosperity, which wrecked what had previously been a relatively prosperous country.
By the time Chavez ran for office, the country was teetering on the edge of ruin from the antics of would-be-Chavez's trying to cash in on his popularity. He then proceeded to push it over the edge.
Sadly, it won't be enough to get rid of Chavez. You have to re-program an entire people, to get rid of the notion that a government can decree wealth, that you can end poverty by seizing property, and so forth. Venezuela was a beautiful country, despite its misunderstanding of economics. But it has chosen badly and set themselves back another 30 years.
Of course he can - anybody can.
It's easy to make everybody poor.
I think that what we should all take from watching Chavez in action, is making sure that none of the same occurs in the US. Unfortunately, many similar things are taking place- eminent domain laws, freedom of speech via internet, wealth redistribution, etc.
It does little good to criticize socialism elsewhere, when they are also occuring right under your own nose.
This is true in much of Latin America.
I imagine so, the thing we should all keep an eye on is that it doesn't happen here!
And Venezuela is not much different than other countries in S.A. Some of the political graffiti I saw in both Venezuela and Columbia in the '60's was so old nobody I asked could remember what the parties stood for; and some of the parties made comebacks in the last 50 yrs. Much of S.A. that I saw seems to turn in circles, making the same mistakes over and over and never breaking out of the cycle.
A very important point and a good way of putting it. One of the problems of many former Spanish colonies is that they were shaped by the mindset developed under a highly centralized, top-down system: Madrid - or at any rate, the central government, whether a monarchy or not - controlled everything and all benefits were essentially dispensed through the central government (and decreed by it). It didn't work very well for Spain, which was a stagnant economic basket case by the end of the 19th century, and the remnants of this way of thinking haven't worked very well for the former Spanish colonies, either.