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Venezuela was hardly the foremost topic on my mind when I recently traveled to Venice, Italy. All throughout the fall, I had been writing articles about political developments in South America and promoting my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press). I had gone to Venice to forget about my book for awhile and to attend an art exhibit put on by my mother, Joyce Kozloff.
One day I decided to go to the famous architectural biennale, located close to San Marco Square. To get to the exhibit, I took the vaporetto, a public boat used by Venetians to get around town. I was less interested in the usual architectural pavilions organized by individual countries than the rest of the show entitled "Cities, Architecture, and Society."
The exhibit addressed population growth in major world cities and its likely impact on people and the environment. After passing through separate rooms dealing with Bogota and Sao Paulo, I came to a section on Caracas.
As someone who has spent a decent amount of time living and working in the Venezuelan capital, I was intrigued to learn more from the exhibit. Caracas had always struck me as one of the least appealing South American cities. Loud, crime-ridden, polluted and anarchic, Caracas was in dire need of urban planning.
Smog, Buoneros, and Disorder
In 2000-2001, while pursuing research for my dissertation, I spent many months living in San Bernardino, a neighborhood located not too far from downtown Caracas. Next to my landlord’s condominium building stood an informal barrio. The housing there was improvised and was built up on the side of a steep hill.
Though San Bernardino was considered unsafe at night and the streets became deserted after 7 PM, one could at least breathe the air. The same could not be said of downtown, where my eyes and throat frequently felt sore from the smog. There, I could not walk down the street as it was clogged with so-called buoneros or informal street vendors.
After carrying out my research in downtown, I would take the subway to the Bellas Artes stop, located beneath San Bernardino. The subway came as a welcome respite to me after the relentless and daily assault on my senses. One of the few bright spots in the city, the subway system was clean and efficient.
Unfortunately, one had to get out of the subway at Bellas Artes and transfer to a bus to reach San Bernardino. Very early during my stay in Caracas, I was pick-pocketed by a gang of thieves as I was riding up the escalator in Bellas Artes. They had distracted me with a ruse on the escalator and I had little chance to see their faces.
Distressed by my experience, I found a cop and told him what had happened. We went back to the subway station, where the policeman pointed at a middle-aged man.
"That was the person who robbed you?" the cop asked.
I scrutinized the man’s face.
"I’m sorry officer," I replied after a moment. "I was robbed so fast that I couldn’t identify the thieves."
The cop was unconcerned by what I had said and took the man down to the station for questioning. As the two marched off down the platform I grew a little concerned and wondered what kind of treatment the man would receive.
For the rest of my stay in Caracas I had no more run-ins with the police. In fact, the cops seemed largely absent from the city’s streets (except for Altamira, an upper class district where they wore nifty outfits and rode bicycles). With a little effort, the police might have brought some security and order to Caracas. In San Bernardino, bunkered down in my room, I would hear the sound of distant gunshots. But, I never saw the police patrolling the neighborhood.
After my unfortunate encounter in Bellas Artes I exercised caution and did not run into more thieves.
Despite this, I had other problems. My daily bus ride to San Bernardino, for example, always proved to be a free for all. There had seemingly been little effort invested in urban planning in and around Bellas Artes, and chronic traffic would delay my trip home by up to an hour.
For relief from the smog and traffic, I would frequently go to Altamira or to Centro Comercial Sambil, a shopping mall.
2006: Return to Caracas
I left Caracas in 2001 and didn’t concern myself much more with the city’s affairs. Years later, now back in New York, I saw a harrowing film entitled Secuestro Express about kidnapping and police corruption in Caracas. The film was directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, who himself had been kidnapped. He and his friends had been grabbed, robbed of their money, ATM cards, and clothes.
The film fell under withering criticism from the government, which blasted it as an attack on life under the Chavez regime. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel denounced Secuestro Express as a "miserable film, a falsification of the truth with no artistic value."
Officials even threatened Jackubowicz with imprisonment, while the government’s film commission declined to submit the movie for Academy Award consideration. Despite this, Secuestro Express became the most popular movie in Venezuelan history.
This past summer, I received an invitation to speak in Caracas. Perhaps, I reasoned, the capital city had improved since 2001. The vision presented in Secuestro Express, I thought, must surely have been sensationalized in line with government claims. Maybe, more politically and socially conscious officials had addressed chronic problems and made Caracas a more habitable city for all. I headed back to the capital city with high hopes.
I was sorely disappointed.
To me, the city seemed more polluted, congested and unsafe than ever. Even more glaring, I saw more people than I remembered in 2001 sleeping in the street around Bellas Artes. At one point, exiting a restaurant near my hotel, a security guard warned me to exercise caution. It was about 9 PM and I felt like taking an evening walk. I didn’t see any cops anywhere in the vicinity and decided to beat a hasty retreat to the hotel.
Indeed, during my entire stay in Caracas I rarely saw policemen patrolling the streets. I quickly reverted to my usual pattern of heading to Altamira and the shopping mall in an effort to escape.
In the run up to the recent presidential election, the opposition media on TV was screaming about the lack of security under the Chavez government and urban crime.
Provea Paints a Bleak Picture
For a less biased view, I turned to Marino Alvarado, the Director of Provea, a respected human rights organization in Caracas. Provea’s office was located downtown near the National Library where I used to conduct research.
The area was scary: nearby, I spotted a young man who was drugged out of his mind and wildly gesticulating in the street.
"During the Chavez mandate," said Marino, "the security situation has worsened. We’ve seen a significant increase in homicides and robberies. The police cooperate quite a lot with criminals. Every day there’s another item in the press about another member of the police who is involved with common crime, drug trafficking, bank robbery, and rape. It’s very difficult to fight crime when the police are part of the problem."
"There are both national and municipal police forces in Caracas," Marino continued. "Nevertheless there is no coordination amongst the different police forces. Every day the violence becomes bloodier. One form of crime that has increased considerably is kidnapping. The criminals in Caracas are well armed. At this point, robbery at knife point is incredibly outdated. There are a lot of firearms on the streets. Almost always in the polls, insecurity is rated as the number one concern amongst the public."
Talking with Marino was a sobering experience. Despite the many social programs undertaken by the government, clearly much more needed to be done in Caracas to encourage a sense of civic mindedness and restore public confidence.
After several weeks in Caracas, I left the city and continued my travels. It was a relief to be rid of the paranoia, pollution and congestion in the capital.
Caracas and Its Historical Evolution
Though Venice has its own urban problems having to do with overcrowded tourism, the city has an organized system of public transportation: the water vaporettos. In contrast to Caracas, crime was not an issue in Venice and I took in the sites at a relaxing and leisurely pace.
At the architectural biennale, I read more about the urban history of Caracas. The problem, according to the exhibit, was that Caracas, originally founded in the 16th century, expanded dramatically during the 1950s oil boom. It was then that the city absorbed many rural residents who moved into informal barrios.
To this day, the city’s fabric is characterized by the barrios, which dot the steep green mountains around Caracas. Currently, 40% of city residents live in barrios. Nevertheless, Caracas is smaller than many other Latin American mega-cities, and has been blessed with a tropical climate, abundant fresh water, and fertile soil.
I was surprised to learn that prominent architects had played a role in the city’s urban planning. Robert Moses, for example, advised the city about its freeways while Le Corbusier sketched out a modernist vision that later materialized into the immense 23 Enero housing project.
Despite these early efforts at fostering order, the city grew anarchically. In the Petare district, multi-story housing grew along steep inclines. Problematically, new housing projects lacked access to public transportation. Meanwhile, the affluent, who built gated homes and golf courses, turned their back on the poor who had little access to basic services such as water, sewage, schools and jobs.
The exhibit presented some startling statistics concerning Caracas. For example, at times over 100 people were murdered in one week in the Venezuelan capital, many under the age of 18. In line with what I had witnessed and heard, Caracas was said to have weak law enforcement and a flourishing drug trade.
Saving the Barrios
I browsed the exhibit further, where I was intrigued by a multi media display showing photos and video of Caracas barrios. According to the display, local authorities had refrained from demolishing the barrios, instead embracing a "retrofitting" strategy. Today, there are small medical centers, gyms, and community kitchens that foster a sense of civic pride in poor areas.
I was particularly struck by a video dealing with a poor barrio called San Rafael/La Vega. The neighborhood, which I was unfamiliar with from my various stays in Caracas, was located in mountainous terrain. According to the exhibit, San Rafael/La Vega is one of the largest spontaneous settlements in Caracas, occupying over 400 hectares and housing some 95,000 residents.
The World Bank has sought to integrate San Rafael/La Vega, physically and socially, with the rest of Caracas. Residents themselves helped to plan the project and carry out construction. The goal of the plan has been to improve services and transportation while building new public spaces.
Gimnasios Verticales: An Innovative Strategy
In an effort to curb violence in Caracas, local authorities have pushed an innovative strategy: construction of new gyms. Informal settlements in the city have historically lacked access to sports facilities. One pioneering project, "Bello Campo," transformed a pre-existing soccer field in the municipality of Chacao into a multi-level sports complex or gimnasio vertical.
The complex, which accommodated up to 200 people, was located in between formal and informal neighborhoods. Free to all residents, Bello Campo has succeeded in bringing together a wide range of local residents. Every year, according to the exhibit, Bello Campo receives 180,000 visitors. Most importantly, since the inception of the gym crime has decreased by 45% in the neighborhood, which has become one of the safest in Chacao municipality. According to the exhibit, Bello Campo is not unique: a video display screen showed additional city locations for other gimnasios verticales.
Solving Caracas’s social problems will surely prove to be one of the most vexing and daunting challenges for President Chavez in his second term. Gimnasios verticales and urban redesign at San Rafael are promising developments. The government will have to do its utmost to integrate other barrios into the urban fabric. Failure to do so will provide further ammunition to the opposition, which will charge that the Chavez government has failed to rein in crime and insecurity.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press). He will shortly start work on another book, South America’s New Direction, also to be published by St. Martin’s Press.