On contemporary Caracas Arthur

Fear and the City

In an old Venezuelan folk song, caraqueno musician Johnny Quiroz eulogizes his city; “Caracas, ciudad hermosa, tu eres bella, Caracas” glows the popular chorus, proclaiming the city’s beauty. To a contemporary North American audience, however, Quiroz’ civic boosterism might come as a bit of a shock. Caracas, we are told, is a city in sharp decline. In recent years, news agencies have inundated us with stories chronicling the Venezuelan capital’s unraveling; narratives of homicide, kidnapping, and widespread violence have become central features of mainstream renderings of the city. Dozens of articles, including a provocative feature by the New York Times, have presented Caracas as an urban hell where fear and violence are woven in to the fabric of everyday life.
At a recent conference in Venezuela, we interviewed Dario Azzellini, a German-Italian documentary filmmaker who has called Caracas home since 2003. Throughout our conversation, he offered a perspective on the city that differs starkly from the one reproduced in the North American mainstream press. Azzellini’s work -which includes 2004’s well received ‘Venezuela from Below’, the story of five factories run by workers- has taken him to the inner depths of the city, including the sprawling destitution of the ‘ranchos’ which blanket its hills. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.

In the North American mainstream press, Caracas is usually described as a city in decline. We are told that the population is heavily armed, that crime rates are soaring, and that homicide is now commonplace. What do you make of these narratives?

Dario Azzellini (DA): From 1981 – the time of the [oil price] crisis - until 1998 when Chavez came to power nothing was invested in Caracas. They didn’t rebuild anything. Caracas was divided into smaller governments, it wasn’t a city. They did here more or less the same thing that they did in London when they established ‘greater London’. Here, they divided the city into five different areas; they did so in such a way that the biggest municipality, Libertador, had about three million inhabitants. This zone included the old centre and many of the poor parts of the city. Another, Petare, was big as well but the others, Chacao, for example, have very small populations, about sixty thousand each.
They divided the city so that the business people, the wealthy, paid their taxes to a local government. This meant that by far the biggest part of the city, which housed many of the poorest people, didn’t have any money to spend while the rich kept their wealth to themselves and made their parts of the city beautiful. This is why the neighborhoods in the east are so nice. The rich did not invest anything in the rest of the city. That is why when Chavez came to power he created the alcadia [municipality] of Caracas. And they have started once again to rebuild the city.
There are, in effect, huge differences and attempts to rebuild the city. For example, the large park, Parque de los Caobos, behind the museums and the theatre. I remember when I came here in 2003 you couldn’t even enter the park. You would be assaulted immediately. Now it is a place where they hold concerts and book fairs. There are quite a few areas in the city centre that are much more liveable now than they were a few years ago. The other thing is crime, the question about crime. There is definitely crime in Caracas. It is high in many parts of Latin America but it is especially high in Caracas, but we need to distinguish what kind of crime we are talking about. For example, you don’t have a situation in Caracas like you did in San Salvador or Guatamela City where after 7:30 at night you couldn’t even go out. You got robbed or kidnapped or whatever.
It is not this way in Caracas. You can take any taxi you want and it would be quite unusual to be assaulted. You can go out after eight o’clock at night. There are, of course, places that can be dangerous, like in all poor cities. But the crime is mainly in the really poor neighborhoods and mainly between gangs, killing each for drugs or whatever. Even for Nike shoes. This is, of course, terrible but it’s nothing like San Salvador where you have constant crime in the inner city. Here it is mainly between gangs.

Beyond gangs, what are some of the other problems that persist even after the political reorganization of the city?

DA: There are real problems, for example, the problem of garbage. In the past, garbage collection was privatized. And, they just stopped collecting garbage in the poor neighborhoods. It is completely right to criticize Bernal, the mayor of Libertador. It took him seven years to think of containers to put on the road. Although I have found Caracas to be a much nicer place to live than it was four years ago. But it is still a monster. It is a city that exploded in just a few years. It is a city that had 40 thousand inhabitants a hundred years ago and now has somewhere between five and six million, but nobody knows. It remains a city without opportunity for many people. It is a valley without any production, without anything for people to do. There are slums here the likes of which exist only in a few areas of Latin America. You have shocking amounts of people living in very small spaces. The only solution, I think, in the middle and long term, is to distribute people in another way all over the country. But you can’t do that by force; people have to want to go on their own. So it is quite a long process. There are programs that are bringing people to other areas, to the countryside, but it is not easy. They have managed, at least, to stop the flight of people from the countryside to the city.

How did they do that?

DA: Simply by offering education and building better facilities and infrastructure in the countryside. If you make the situation better in the countryside people won’t feel the need to leave. This is a big achievement. To stop the movement to Caracas is really important. But to reverse it is much more difficult.

Is there a sense that Chavez has awakened a giant? Are the people who live in the ranchos politicized now in way that they weren’t before he emerged?

DA: Definitely. I am working on interviews with the new communal councils. Even there, most of the activists didn’t have any forms of social or political organization before 2001 and nearly 95 per cent of them hadn’t participated in any kind of election before 1998. If you look at the registration rolls for the elections when Chavez was elected the first time you had 9 million registered voters and now you have nearly 15 million. It’s not that six million people grew up and suddenly became 18 years old. Before, they simply did not participate; there was total exclusion from the process. Absolutely there is an awakening.

Is there a sense though, that the awakening is bigger than Chavez. Is this a political culture that could live on without him?
DA: The two times we had serious attacks from the opposition the Golpe [coup] and the oil strike, we saw massive mobilizations of people, millions of people. They made the coup impossible and they made the oil sabotage senseless. There are, in fact, voices who say that Chavez is the only one who can control these mobilizations. He is the one calming them down. For example after the coup, if Chavez had not have calmed everyone down, I am sure they would have gone and burned the homes of the rich. It was Chavez who said no, we must calm down. If they try another coup, I think, the homes of the rich will burn. People are really fed up and it is the government and institutions that is having this calming effect, asking people to wait. But it is also a big problem. If something happened to Chavez, if he were killed for example, it would cause a major disaster, an incredible battle and also a major conflict inside the left.
Of course, the importance of Chavez has its pros and cons. It is extremely negative that the process is depending so much on one person. This is not an idea that is consistent with revolutionary politics, with social transformation. But on the other hand he is the only one able to talk to the people. They listen to him. He hasn’t been corrupted by the political system. He has managed to stay above the party system. He is the one who is identified with the revolutionary process. He is the one taking the ideas from the people and transforming them in to politics. I think that is why his role is still very important. As a revolutionary I can’t accept that he is the only one. But at the moment I don’t see any sense in trying to change because it couldn’t work another way. Even if it is full of contradictions, this is the way it works.