The drive from Simon Bolivar airport to the centre of Caracas retains the capacity to shock even the most hardened of travellers. It is not that poverty in oil-rich Venezuela is particularly acute by Latin American standards. I have seen much worse in Peru; mothers with dull eyes for whom a book is no more than an unintelligible mass of paper and ink, and children who grab at your trouser legs and, in return for a few coins, agree to cease whining: “Meester, please, me hungry”; the transaction robbing both the hunter and his prey of their humanity. In Venezuela, the shock is less to do with absolute poverty, and more to do with the way that social contrasts are expressed through geography, and in particular, altitude.
Hugo Chávez, the country’s socialist president, is often blamed for the political polarisation of Venezuelan society. But the fact that the basis of that divide — the polarisation of wealth and power — long preceded Chávez, is proved by the urban landscape.
Suppose it were you in the passenger seat on your way into Caracas. Along the route you would doubtless look out of the window to your right. Were you to do so, you would see rows of ostentatious high-rise apartment blocks with polished windows, some of them with neatly manicured jungles protruding out of each balcony like a series of elaborate Chelsea flower shows rising into the sky. These are the homes of the middle classes. Then, if you turned your head and looked up the mountainside to your left, you would be confronted with reality as experienced by most Venezuelans: the barrio.
It is impossible to describe the architecture of a Caracas barrio by reference to a poor neighbourhood in London, Paris or New York. Seen from a distance, it is as if God had taken a giant wheelbarrow, filled with hundreds of thousands of tiny, half-made cubes and then proceeded to pour the contents indiscriminately over the mountainsides. As the cubes land, they come to rest in no particular order; one perched precariously atop another, all of them somehow defying the force of gravity.
But of course, the barrios were constructed by people: poor people from the countryside who migrated to the city during the course of the 20th century. When they arrived, finding no homes or land at prices they could afford, they squatted on unused land on the sides of the mountains, and began to surround the city with their own makeshift dwellings, built with whatever materials they could lay their hands on: usually a combination of brick, breeze block and tin, or for the less fortunate, cardboard.
The view from my friend’s balcony on the 24th floor of a tower block, situated in the middle-class district of Los Dos Caminos, is spectacular. It is as if I am surveying the city from atop a lighthouse that has been plonked in the centre of a giant misshapen bowl. In the centre, there are streets arranged in straight lines, modern blocks of flats, gleaming shopping malls, and the ever-present traffic jams. Wrapped around the sides of the bowl are the barrios. Three or four kilometres from my vantage point is the Petare barrio, one of the largest in Latin America and home to almost half a million Venezuelans. At night, Petare rises in glittering yellow and white dots like the lights of a thousand Christmas trees. Soon the barrio will sparkle in monochrome, as the government programme of replacing the old yellow bulbs with energy-saving white ones nears completion.
The landscape provides a physical dimension to the sense that Caracas is a city under siege from itself: the better-off, literally, looking up at the poor who look down on the richer citizens. Politically also, Venezuelan society, in the throes of its 21st century socialist revolution, has some features of the siege warfare of previous eras. Those who were formerly socially excluded now have political power; although the wealthy retain much of the economic and ideological power, through their ownership of the private media and other businesses.
Despite Chávez having won 10 elections and referendums (and immediately accepting defeat in the one he lost), the disinformation war against Venezuelan democracy continues unabated. Two weeks ago, one of the presenters on Globovision told his viewers, apparently with a straight face, that a bank robbery in Altagracia de Orituco was the fault of Chávez. Later I watched a talk show where three upper-class pundits announced, again with no detectable trace of irony, that they were planning to march against “hunger and poverty”. Incredibly, they meant their hunger and their poverty.
A few days earlier, I had been shopping in a typical Caracas supermarket in an upmarket part of town. The selection of foodstuffs, fresh, frozen and tinned, stacked high on every shelf, was as impressive as anything offered by Tesco or Wal-Mart. The only product we could not find was milk, which is being hoarded and illegally exported to Colombia by producers and distributors in an attempt to bust government price controls on basic foodstuffs. And despite the sporadic shortages, Venezuelans of all social classes are consuming more food than ever before. In the barrios, state-owned Mercal supermarkets sell food at around half the market price.
On another occasion, I stopped for a cafe negro at one of the multi-purpose street kiosks that are dotted all around Caracas. The usual selection of anti-government newspapers were on display: El Nacional, El Universal, El Mundo, El Nuevo Pais, as well as one or two more moderate organs. Most of them led with an anti-Chávez story, but the headline that grabbed my attention was the one from Tal Cual, a supposedly liberal paper: “Another dictatorship? Never!” it screamed. Last year one of their front page headlines was “Heil Hugo”. Underneath was a photomontage of Chavez in a Hitler moustache. Despite these provocations, neither Tal Cual nor any of the more extreme rightwing papers has ever been subject to any censorship by the Chávez administration. Polls show that the percentage of Venezuelans who are “satisfied with their democracy works” has risen from 35% to 59% during the Chávez presidency. The Latin American average is 37%.
In December, Chávez suffered his first ever electoral defeat. Constitutional changes that would have enshrined participatory democracy and removed the limit on the number of terms a president could serve were rejected by the narrowest of margins in a nationwide referendum. While the opposition vote remained unchanged at four and a half million, over one-third of government supporters opted to stay at home. Many reasons have been advanced to explain this mass abstention — including the milk shortages; high crime rates and corruption; the complexity of the proposals; bureaucratic inefficiency; a poor campaign and complacency.
Undoubtedly, private media propaganda also played its part in confusing supporters of the revolution and shoring up support for the opposition. One man told me that his mother-in-law, a hitherto loyal Chávez voter, had abstained, fearing that if the amendments were passed, the government would nationalise her apartment. I checked the voting records for the middle-class area where I was staying. Some 87% of my neighbours had voted against the proposals. However, it would be foolish for the opposition to draw too much comfort from their referendum victory. Chávez remains overwhelmingly popular in the barrios and provided that the government is able to refocus its efforts on delivery, those of his supporters who abstained will turn out in future elections.
What lies behind the shrill anti- Chávez hysteria (much of it financed by the US government) isn’t a crumbling economy or state repression but the exclusion of the former ruling class and their allies in Washington from the levers of state power. While Venezuela retains many of the features of the pre-revolutionary era, including bureaucracy and corruption, independent surveys show that incomes for the working class and poor majority have risen by a staggering 130% in real terms.
But the changes in people’s lives involve more than just improvements in material living standards. While on a visit to the town of Naiguata on the Caribbean coast, I happened upon one of the 2,000 new clinics which are providing top-quality healthcare to Venezuela’s poor majority. Inside, I spoke to Antonio Brito, a 25-year-old Venezuelan doctor who had recently graduated from the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba. Doctor Brito told me that of the 94 students in his class, over one-third were from indigenous communities. Those who graduated with him are now serving in their tribal villages. I asked Brito how much a foreigner like me would be charged for treatment. “Here, medical treatment is completely free for everybody,” he replied. “The only qualification is that you are a human being.”
In the mountains of the 23 de Enero barrio in Caracas, I saw more examples of the transformation that is taking place in Venezuela. In one part of the barrio, I saw newly installed gas pipes running up the side of each house. Residents are also being connected to the outside world. In the La Cañada district, I visited a brand new infocentre, which provides computer training and unlimited broadband internet access on 74 terminals, free of charge. One of the facilitators explained that the infocentre is the result of a partnership between the ministry of science and technology and the local community. The ministry provided the building materials, logistical support and computers, and the community built the centre and chose the staff. Five hundred similar infocentres have been opened in the barrios.
Of course, Venezuela’s socialist revolution is not occurring in a geopolitical vacuum. The re-emergence of multi-polarity, specifically the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia, has created economic and political possibilities for third world countries that previously would have been unthinkable. A host of Latin American states, among them Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, have decisively rejected neo-liberal orthodoxy and US hegemony, and are co-operating through Alba and other mutual trade and investment arrangements. In South Africa, the clean sweep for the left in the elections to the leadership of the country’s governing ANC, was in part inspired by the changes taking place in Latin America.
A popular slogan painted on walls across Latin America is Un Mundo Mejor es Necesario (in English — a better world is necessary). For the first time in a generation, a better world is also becoming possible.