April 19, 2002

First Person

Venezuela Fault Lines – Remembering Rich and Poor in Caracas

By Marcelo Ballve

This isn’t the first time Caracas is recovering from a street battle that shook Venezuela to its roots.

I arrived to live there with my family a few months after the Caracazo of February 1989, a watershed demonstration when the streets of the capital erupted in furious protests by poor residents that stunned its once-complacent elites and redrew the political map in the nation of 24 million.

It was a day of terrible bloodshed, when the tropical oil paradise that Venezuela was still pretending to be was exposed as a threadbare myth. The memory of that Caracazo was certainly behind the massive resistance of slum-dwellers who helped restore President Hugo Chavez to power last weekend.

For two years, my family lived in one of the semi-fortified apartment buildings that housed the upper classes, hilltop compounds with pools and landscaped gardens. Each building had its electric gates topped by razor wire and a security command center filled with surveillance monitors.

My father was a Coca-Cola executive and I attended school with the children of foreign diplomats and local elites. My friends’ parents reminisced about holing up sniper-style on rooftops of their villa apartments during the rioting, alternating guard duty, pointing semi-automatic rifles down palmy streets in case looting hordes came near.

Before the Caracazo, the country was still regarded a model South American democracy. Facing heavy debt, President Carlos Andres Perez announced price hikes — including for gasoline and public transportation — as part of an austerity plan virtually mandated by the International Monetary Fund.

But after years of stubborn unemployment, plummeting wages and food shortages, the price hikes pushed to a breaking point. The streets exploded. Looting and rioting were brutally repressed by troops, cops and vigilante justice. Hundreds died.

When the government regained control, things appeared to return to normal for a time. Wealthy Venezuelans remained ensconced in leafy country clubs, spending rum-soaked evenings at merengue dance parties, waited on at home by a small platoon of domestic workers from the slums, usually including a chauffeur who packed a pistol like a bodyguard, two maids and a gardener.

But the country was changed. The fault lines had been clearly exposed.

When the quake finally happened, it was at the ballot box. The 80 percent of Venezuelans who are poor put Chavez into office in 1998. More precisely, his core constituency is the burgeoning urban underclass, residents of massive tin-roof and cinderblock slums who are scrambling not to be poor at all.

Venezuela officially has 15 percent unemployment. But up to half the workforce labors in the so-called informal sector: street vendors, unlicensed cabbies, domestic servants, day laborers.

Typical of Chavez’s most loyal supporters are the buhoneros, street vendors. They throng downtown streets by the thousands, hustling everything from pirated CDs to Nike knockoffs.

As a teenager visiting their domain — the pedestrian plazas of the Sabana Grande neighborhood — I haggled over Metallica T-shirts that would bleed colors and shrink to unwearable miniatures in the wash. My friend bought oysters from a vendor selling them from a bucket; he was sick for weeks. But the buhoneros thrive because they supply enough demand to enough customers who come back for more.

Chavez shielded the street vendors from police raids and promised them market stalls; he unsuccessfully tried to force labor unions to accept them into their ranks.

Chavez’ rhetoric declared that urban squatters eventually deserved legal titles to the places they lived. He instituted policies — including legal reforms — that made it possible.

When I lived in Caracas after the l989 uprising was squelched, Venezuela felt like the scene of the final hours of a party, when revelers make a last stand of bad behavior. Leaders were gutting the once-generous social programs.

And the gleam had clearly faded from the oil boom economy of the 1970s. New highways did encircle the city, but they were full of potholes that caused fatal accidents. The high-rise headquarters of the state oil company appeared monumental at night, but daylight revealed broken windows covered with cardboard.

Waves of rural migration originally triggered by the boom continued. The slums grew unplanned.

In Petare — a muddy mountain of a shantytown on the capital’s outskirts, I remember jerrybuilt homes were routinely washed away by afternoon downpours. People nodded their heads as Chavez the candidate railed against “savage capitalism.” He promised he would construct a new social order, redistribute the oil wealth.

It’s true that Chavez hasn’t delivered on his promises. Even his support among the poor weakened after an economic downswing and a devaluation. But for now, it appears that the comfortable classes can’t simply flick him away. And the residents of the vast neighborhoods politicized by the 1989 Caracazo have rallied to defend him as if they had no other hope. They led the “counter-counterrevolution” that restored Chavez to the presidential palace within three days of the would-be coup spearheaded by business executives, organized labor, the oil establishment and elements of the military.

The months ahead could be dangerous. With Chavez back in power, the class rifts first exposed by the Caracazo are now more raw than ever.

Ballve (ballve@hotmail.com) is an editor and freelance writer who grew up in Latin America.

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