Articles touting Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's political successes and social programs are a dime a dozen on left wing Web sites these days. When I was researching my own book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (recently released by St. Martin's Press), I read a lot of these accounts and began to develop an exceedingly idealistic idea of what was happening in Venezuela. Having just returned from an extended six week trip to the country, however, I feel that the political and social landscape is a lot murkier and more ambiguous than many have suggested.
As an admittedly "left wing tourist," I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a delegation organized by Witness For Peace, a Washington, D.C. based group which has been working for more than twenty years to halt U.S. interventionism in Latin America. As a member or our delegation, I had the rare privilege to interview figures from across the political spectrum. After the delegation left, I stayed and conducted more interviews on my own.
Housing: A Mixed Picture
One of the most daunting issues facing the Chavez government has been the dire shortage of housing in the country. All over surrounding Caracas, brick houses lean precariously off the side of steep and eroded hillsides.
To really get a sense of the magnitude of the problem one must first travel to the state of Vargas. Located about an hour from Caracas by car, Vargas spans the coast and has a brutal tropical climate. Today, the state is still reeling from a tragic natural disaster which occurred years ago.
On December 14, 1999 intense rains fell across the state. For four days, the rains continued. On the 17th, massive landslides shook the area, with rivers of dirt and mud falling down the mountain slopes. The avalanche brought with it collapsed houses, creating a human catastrophe of epic proportions.
Traveling with my delegation to the site of the devastation, we saw a gully where the landslide had washed out houses, mud and earth. A group of construction workers were laboring in the torrid heat. They were removing rocks from the area and building a dike further down below.
We spoke to a middle aged Afro-Colombian woman whose house was severely damaged by the landslide. "When the landslide arrived," she told us, "it took everything away and anything that was left we had to sell in order to eat."
To the side of the gully, there were still people living in rudimentary cinder block houses with no access to public services. There was no garbage pick up, forcing local residents to burn their refuse in a gigantic pile. Looking up the side of the hill, I feared that the earth might collapse on top of the houses in the event of further heavy rains.
Seven years later, local residents in the area complained that the government still had not processed their paperwork so they might relocate to safer housing away from the disaster area. One young man with three children said that he and his family were ready to relocate, but that the authorities had delayed and delayed.
"Chavez has never come here to see what's going on," he complained bitterly.
To be fair, the housing problem predates Chavez's arrival as president. Prior to his election, there was a great scarcity of housing in the country. The Vargas tragedy, which occurred scarcely a year into Chavez's first term, compounded the housing situation yet further.
Nevertheless, the government has brought some relief and has enjoyed some notable successes.
Traveling in a blue van rented by our delegation, we traveled to the state of Miranda near Caracas. There, we saw a model housing program called Ciudad Miranda, consisting of dozens of tall apartment blocks and smaller houses. A local guide explained that people had been relocated to Ciudad Miranda from unsafe housing in Caracas and Vargas. Once residents were ensconced in Ciudad Miranda and had been awarded an apartment, they would have twenty years to pay back government housing loans.
As I walked up to the apartment blocks, I noticed that on the first floor many residents had set up cooperative businesses. According to our local guide, the government had provided start up money for the new cooperatives. What is more, on one corner the authorities had almost finished constructing a local school.
I spoke with the owners of one local grocery who had been refugees from Vargas. They told me of their harrowing tale of escape, and how their entire house had been swept away by the landslide. The residents were pleased to have left Vargas behind, but Ciudad Miranda was not immune from social problems.
Store owners told us that some people had moved into Ciudad Miranda without proper documentation and there was little security in the housing complex. Additionally, from a purely aesthetic point of view Ciudad Miranda left something to be desired: the apartment blocks were unattractive, and the small houses were not much more appealing.
On the other hand, in the hills surrounding the town of Charallave in the state of Miranda, the government has tried a different approach. There, the authorities have built housing on a much smaller, human scale. Local residents had traded in their ranchitos or rudimentary shacks for charming looking houses.
I admired one house, freshly painted on the outside in red and white. Walking inside I observed a modern kitchen and bathroom. The local woman who was set to move in to the house beamed proudly as she guided us around the premises. She denied that there had been any favoritism in the allocation of housing and that members of the Chavez opposition would be able to acquire a house.
On the other hand, it had been a battle to get the authorities to construct the housing. According to our guide, the authorities had only been spurred to construct the new houses after local residents mobilized and successfully lobbied the media to draw attention to their plight.
Back in Caracas, I asked Rafael Uzcategui, the media coordinator of the human rights group Provea, what he made of the government housing program. My old acquaintance was critical of the authorities for what he called an overly quantitative approach. "The government says it will build, say 100,000 houses. But more thought needs to go into planning. New housing needs to be more conveniently located to services, employment, and medical facilities."
Rafael was also critical of government inefficiency. Recently, he said, the housing minister was sacked after only one year. Whenever a fresh minister was appointed the new official would bring a different agenda and separate programs, thus encouraging bureaucratic inefficiency and waste.
Seven Years After: Chavez's Mixed Record
During a meeting with our delegation, Marino Alvarado, the coordinator at Provea, soberly evaluated Chavez's tenure in office. While Chavez's victory in 1998 held out the possibility of overcoming traditional social problems, after seven years of the Chavez regime many hopes had not been satisfied.
"There are some policies that are very positive," Marino remarked. However, he added, "in other areas things are pretty much the same."
Marino conceded that there was a great willingness within the government to help the poorest and historically most marginalized sectors of society. On the other hand, there was great government inefficiency and "the willingness on the government's part to carry out policies is not enough to make the policies happen."
Marino explained that the country was awash in oil money, and people's expectations were high. However, due to inefficiency public discontent was mounting.
"There's a lot of social protest," Marino told us, "calling on the government to comply with promises that haven't been met. These are not opposition protests against Chavez, we're talking about sectors of the population that are supportive of the government. They are calling for the authorities to actually implement programs. They are calling for the right to health care, the right to housing, the right to work."
Leaning forward, Marino confided to us, "if you go to the presidential palace right now I'm sure you'll find people there. Every day there is another protest."
Chavez had been fortunate in that he'd enjoyed a kind of cult of personality. When something went wrong, Marino said, the poor tended to blame inefficient government bureaucrats and not the president. The problem was that cases of corruption were mounting at the highest levels of government.
Politically, Marino said, Chavez would win the December presidential election.
However, he added, "there could be a moment when people start to point to Chavez as the figure that's responsible for government inefficiency. If there aren't solutions to social problems very soon, it would not be strange to think that there might be a popular uprising against the president."