I never left Caracas during my 7 day trip, and residents always urged me to get out and see the natural wonders of the country. But Caracas is interesting enough for a newcomer — built in a valley surrounded by green hills, and continuing on the other side of more hills which you traverse through a tunnel on the way north to the airport on the coast.
Everywhere you go you feel the presence of the oil economy; the boom of fancy buildings of concrete, marble, and modern elevators, the bust of crumbling concrete, leaky plumbing, dirty carpets. The most impressive feature of Caracas is a clean, modern subway system which is being expanded there and replicated in other cities.
Then there is the wonder of the red brick shantytowns clinging precariously to the hillsides in and around Caracas. They say that Chavez gave the people the bricks to solidify these improvised homes, which sprang up as people from around the country gave up on the impoverishment of rural life and migrated to the big city looking for work. Chavez granted land titles to these people, who make up a large part of the 6 million inhabitants of Caracas — nearly 25% of the population of the country. He also gave them paved roads, free running water, telephone lines, and electricity at about $1.00 a month. I know because I went to one of these neighborhoods and asked them.
The elites are terrified of these folks, and extremely put out that the shanty dwellers would not only be taken into account by the government, but that they represent a permanent army encamped around the city, ready to march down from the hills at any time and defend their revolution. I truly believe that this is the primal source of the violent, irrational hatred that the opposition has for Chavez — his widespread support among the poor who, in the minds of the rich, are not even members of society and should not be playing any role except that of the silent worker or servant. You can’t avoid hearing the phrase “participatory protagonistic democracy” which is replacing “representative democracy.” Something the ruling class really fears, because it loosens the grip on power held by the economic elites.
Another natural wonder is Hugo Chavez Frias himself. The humility with which he greeted his landslide victory in the referendum was impressive, as was the way in which he continued his practice of calling on the violent and intransigent opposition, on the payroll of Washington, to reflect and reconsider their positions for the sake of the country. Generous, yes, but not foolish enough to make concessions to them, or to give them any opening that would enable them to put his government in danger. He waged an astute campaign: naturalizing and registering as many people as he could to vote, closing the Colombian border, confining the police to their headquarters, and working with observers and the Electoral Board for a technologically sophisticated but secure system of voting and tabulation.
The grassroots was also mobilized in patrols — first to convince the undecided, second to get people out to vote on the 15th, and third to patrol physically to prevent provocations by the opposition. They had the help of printed materials, T-shirts, and billboards and other signs urging a NO vote, and there are a few pro-Chavez newspapers and other publications. But the strongest suit of all was the creation of social programs which are springing up all over — just the Bolivarian University system, one of four new universities founded by Chavez, will have 25,000 low-income students by the end of 2005. The patrulleros didn’t have to convince the beneficiaries of these programs to vote, and the record turnout was even more impressive when one considered the physical stress of standing in line for 6-15 hours.
There were many tired faces in Caracas on the 16th, but if Chavez was tired, he didn’t show it during his marathon press conference, where his ability to elucidate and entertain in his familiar manner delighted the journalists, who broke out in applause a few times.
So maybe I’ll have the chance one day to go back and see those other wonders — and I hope I do. But this time the Bolivarian revolution is wonder enough.
Diana Barahona can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org