Venezuela: Poverty and destitution in the hills around Caracas

A couple of days ago I was in the back of a battered old van, driving through the night to the city centre of Caracas.

Although the Chavez regime in Venezuela, now celebrating its eighth year in power, has carried out social reforms, the Venezuelan masses still live in horrendous poverty.

The following article is written to give the reader some idea about the terrible conditions of life in the hills surrounding Caracas, the capital city.

Poverty and destitution in the hills around Caracas

People carriers must have been invented in these parts because they are all vans made in the 1970s and fitted with benches in the back to take as many as 16 people. This is the main public transport in Caracas and prices are controlled by the government.

The driver of our mini-bus tried to evade the traffic jams on the main motorway by taking us through the mountains on secondary unlit roads. During the first hour of twisting and turning along the nearby coast into the city we saw practically nothing. The only lights were those from approaching vehicles hurtling on every turn in the road at breakneck speed. Creeping towards the city, you turn a corner and suddenly the slopes of the mountains are lit up by a thousand little lights, as if a giant cloud of fireflies has covered the slopes. This is where the poorest of the poor live, millions of people down the side of mountains, without any permanent access to water and electricity, without roads, without a decent sewage system and permanently tormented by the highest levels of crime and violence in the world. Official figures suggest that most of the world’s war zones are relatively safer than big Latin American cities like Sao Paulo or Caracas.

Around Caracas you find some of the largest barrios [shanty towns] of Latin America. The ‘barrio Petare’, on the edge of Caracas, is said to be the second biggest in Latin America. More than one and a half million people are packed in there. Nobody knows what the real crime rate is in these places. The police are unreliable, journalists rarely go there, and keeping statistics is understandably not the first priority in those hellish conditions. Yesterday’s paper reported the toll of a regular weekend of violence. The morgue started counting fatal victims on Friday night and by Sunday morning the tally reached 28 bodies. Most of the victims were young people who died from gunshot wounds. In just the municipality of ‘Sucre’ alone, a part of Petare, 10 people died over the same period. The aunt of a 17 year old victim, Angela Rosa Sanchez, complained about the police: “Now the local police want us to capture the criminals ourselves and that we take our own victims to the morgue so that they do not have to work so hard. This is what things have come to in our barrio. We want to be able to live in peace”. The police forces are seen as unreliable and sometimes more dangerous and corrupt than the armed criminals.

Apart from destitution, poverty and crime, the people who inhabit the face of the mountain have to battle the elements. It is the rainy season over here, when houses are consumed by mudslides and rivers overflow. The government promised to re-house those people who have lost their houses or those people who live in areas which have become uninhabitable. But months go by and nothing happens.

This situation led to improvised encampments in some of the parks and the green areas around the city. Here, as if in a scene from the John Steinbeck novel, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, small tent cities appear. Families build makeshift homes from sheet metal, cardboard and tent cloth. In the city itself, and on a very small scale, some of the deserted buildings are occupied by those families whose houses were destroyed by mudslides. The response from the City Council, and the Mayor of Caracas, Freddy Bernal, was the same throughout. Help gets promised but no plans are made to tackle the desperate housing need, to provide water and electricity for the poor, or to reconstruct the crumbling infrastructure. The mayor has declared on several occasions that private property has to be respected and is sacrosanct. This while everywhere in the city one can see empty and dilapidated buildings, owned by housing profiteers and speculators.

“Tap water once every two weeks”

In Nueva Taca, part of Caracas, 20 families are waiting for the National Housing Institution to pay compensation for their destroyed houses. They live in the most terrible conditions. “Here we only have tap water once every two weeks, at times I have to use rainwater to make a baby bottle of food for the little one” said Ericka Sanchez, who lives in the zone. The people in that zone wash their clothes in a nearby stream, a pool of stagnant, stinking water. The children and adults develop marks on their skins and scabies, a transmissible skin disease brought on by mites burying themselves into skin and reproducing. This can cause intense itching and can infect whole families.

Because of the state of the roads in Nueva Taca there is no transport. Children stopped going to school and the heightened isolation of the community invited more crime. Juan Flores, one of the residents, who has a car, complains bitterly, “Because the road is blocked I have had to leave my car parked outside the house. Everyday something new is stolen from the car and now there is no car – just a piece of stripped down junk”.

Figures suggest that more then half of the population of Venezuela lives in poverty: this in a country that is extremely rich with oil and other resources. It is a country with pockets of highly developed industry and a workforce to match it. International capitalism and the Venezuelan elite have never been able to develop the country and to end the endemic poverty of the majority of the people. Poverty, poor infrastructure, lack of water and electricity, and high levels of crime, are not down to bad luck, bad attitudes or bad education. In the end, what you see in the hills of Caracas is the result of capitalism’s impregnable limits: its incapacity in the modern era to develop the productive forces of society and, by doing so, to develop the nation, as a whole.

To rebuild the country, so that the needs of the masses are answered, the workers’ movement and the poor need to embrace socialism. What we need to demand is the nationalisation of the main sectors of the economy, the immediate implementation of an emergency plan to deal with housing, transport, electricity and water. Socialism, the democratic planning of the economy under workers’ management and the conquering of political power by workers and their organisations, is the only guarantee to a future where workers and poor will be neither beggars nor slaves.

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July 2006