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
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
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
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
Undoubtedly, private media propaganda also played its part in
confusing supporters of the revolution and shoring up support for the
opposition. One man I spoke to 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.