Venezuelan Government and Civil Society Increase Flood Relief for Thousands of Rain Victims

In response to heavy flooding caused by two weeks of torrential rains, the Venezuelan government declared a 90-day state of emergency in four additional states yesterday and announced a $2.3 billion (10 billion bolivars) special fund for flood victims. Independent efforts by organizations around the country have also strengthened the overall response to Venezuela’s worst rain in 40 years.

By James Suggett - Venezuelanalysis.com
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Mérida, December 7th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – In response to heavy flooding caused by two weeks of torrential rains, the Venezuelan government declared a 90-day state of emergency in four additional states yesterday and announced a $2.3 billion (10 billion bolivars) special fund for flood victims.

The states of Zulia, Merida, Trujillo, and Nueva Esparta were added to the list of seven other states where official emergencies have been declared with the purpose of “allowing decisions to move forward that transcend the power and the capacity of the local governments,” according to President Hugo Chavez.

Nearly half of Venezuela’s states are now in an official state of emergency.

The president pledged that the 10 billion bolivars will be drawn from the National Reserve Fund and used toward “an integral reconstruction plan” for every community impacted by the rains. In addition, the government will use profits from the state-owned telecommunications company, CANTV, to pay a 1,223 bolivar ($284) holiday “bonus” to each of the 5,000 families – approximately 20,000 people – who were forced from their homes by the flooding.

Chavez has been on a non-stop, nation-wide, night and day tour of the areas affected by the flooding.

On Monday, during a visit to the rural, mostly indigenous Guajira region of northwestern Zulia, Chavez described the situation as “very dramatic.”

“The Guajira is underwater. It is a sea in the Guajira... we saw people leaving their homes with children in water up to their chests,” Chavez said as he met with hundreds of flood victims on national television.

“The water swept away a dignified soldier who we still haven’t found. I am filled with dismay, very impacted, and sensitized to the calamity that the people are living,” Chavez said.

To house the flood victims, starting on Saturday and throughout the coming months the government will gradually hand over 1,045 recently nationalized homes and apartments in the capital city of Caracas as well as in the states of Miranda, Trujillo and Zulia.

Chavez also announced that 4.3 billion bolivars ($1 billion) earned from a recent sale of oil refineries to Russia will be earmarked for new housing construction for the flood victims.

In the meantime, the Venezuelan head of state issued a decree obligating large luxury hotels to open their doors temporarily to people displaced by the mudslides, rains, and flooding.

“How are we going to permit these huge luxury hotels to be here, while people outside are up to their necks in rain?” Chavez declared after giving the nationally televised order to occupy the hotels.

Chavez repeatedly called for “order” in the process of transporting people and occupying the hotels and charged National Guard General Luis Motto to manage the process.

In an interview with the state television station VTV, General Motto stressed that there is no seizure of private property occurring at the hotels as some media outlets have alleged, and that the government is coordinating with the hotel owners for the temporary occupation.

“It is completely calm here. The private management is collaborating willingly. The hotel owners have communicated with us and up until now they have offered 150 bedrooms,” said Motto amidst a group of flood refugees outside of the Higuerote Hotel near Caracas.

The opposition television channel Globovision interviewed the vice president of the National Federation of Hotels, Ricardo Cusanno, who stated: “We are always open to helping, but within a cordial relationship in which the rules are clear.”

Civil Society Efforts

A number of independent efforts by people and organizations around the country have also strengthened the overall response to Venezuela’s worst rain in 40 years.

The Venezuelan Network of Afro-Descendants has opened its Center for Integral Studies of the African Diaspora in the coastal region of Barlovento to house and provide basic services to flood victims.

Several labor unions and community organizations have also initiated spontaneous efforts to aid flood victims. The state-funded leftist youth organization Frente Francisco de Miranda has sent brigades of relief workers to affected communities nation-wide.

María Rosa Jimenez, a national coordinator of the Frente Francisco de Miranda, described the civil society relief effort to the state television station VTV: “What is happening is the people are deepening their solidarity with one another, and their trust in the government, which has shown its face,” she said.

“The crisis is the product of the economic and social model we live in,” Jimenez said, reiterating the argument made by many Venezuelan socialists that capitalism has caused environmental destruction that in turn has created natural disasters such as the recent rains.

“Whatever the government of President Hugo Chavez does, those who sustain this model and the private media that serve it and serve the historically dominant classes are going to try to generate fear and fabricate a reality that is not the one the people are living,” said Jimenez.

Government officials and members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela have repeatedly called on the Catholic Church and the opposition-controlled state and local governments to help in the flood relief effort by opening their facilities to people displaced by the rains and by actively helping the relief effort.

Venezuela experienced a record-setting drought in 2009 that nearly shutdown the nation’s largest dam and contributed to a national electricity shortage. The recent rains have punctuated a particularly heavy rainy season this year.

David Sánchez of the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology announced yesterday that light rains are expected to continue in Venezuela’s eastern and Andean regions.

The last two weeks of rains have caused the death of 35 people, destroyed the homes of more than 5,000 people, and led more than 70,000 to flee their homes and take refuge in hundreds of emergency tent camps, hotels, and government buildings including the presidential palace and other structures that have been transformed into shelters.