Dateline ACT Venezuela 3/00: Cooperation lends hope in a devastated land

By Paul Jeffrey
Carmen de Uria, Venezuela, January 25, 2000

As he makes his pastoral rounds through Carmen de Uria, Felipe Colmenares is welcomed by the dogs who stand guard over the eery rubble. Weeks after floods and mudslides assaulted the north coast of Venezuela, the few animals who somehow survived here are still waiting in vain for their masters. The dogs timidly greet the Catholic priest as he picks his way through the hardened mud and gigantic boulders that cover what was once a bustling seaside resort town.

As many as five thousand people died here, roughly half the town's population. The exact numbers will never be known, as many bodies were swept out to sea or buried under a four-block wide swath of debris that extends 300 meters into the muddy Caribbean.

Colmenares is pastor of the neighboring parish of Naiguatá, just five kilometers to the east, but since the December disaster has taken charge of three other parishes in this northern state of Vargas, the most devastated portion of Venezuela. In one parish, the priest broke a leg during the flooding and is away recuperating. Another priest took a leave to help his family relocate after their home was destroyed. And the priest in Carmen de Uria left in a daze, having helplessly watched half his flock disappear in a few minutes when a torrent of water, mud, boulders and tree trunks poured off the steep hillsides that loom around the town.

For Colmenares, there's not much to do in Carmen de Uria. The town is under military control. Government leaders suggest turning what remains into a memorial park. Most of the survivors live in emergency shelters elsewhere. A few residents come back to dig vehicles out of the muck. When bodies are found, the priest prays over the remains.

For the most part, Colmenares just walks, remembering the people he knew here. At the ruins of one house, where relatives have pasted a photo of the family that once lived there and is now disappeared, Colmenares leans against the wall and breathes heavily. "I baptized that child," he says, pointing to the photo. He pauses, wanting to say more, but instead can only walk off into the silence of a town that today belongs mostly to the dead and disappeared.

In Colmenares' home parish of Naiguatá, however, life has begun again. Not as hard hit as Carmen de Uria, with better community organization allowing neighbors to more quickly spread the alarm, only nine people died in Naiguatá. Perched safely on a hill over the town, the Our Lady of Coromoto parish school at first served as a refuge for residents fleeing rising waters. School Director Teresa Pacheco, a Sister of Charity of St. Anne, said she couldn't even walk though the building, there was no free space to set her feet.

In the weeks that followed, the school became a way station, a stopover point for families making pilgrimages along the shattered coastline. While some survivors trekked out, hoping never to return, others arrived on foot, hiking for days through mud to search in vain for their loved ones. The coastal road, covered in places by six meters of mud and plagued by fresh slides, is just now opening up to four-wheel drive vehicles.

Colmenares, who was swept by the current for 100 meters the night of the disaster before grabbing onto a doorway and climbing to safety, admitted it's been hard. "My feelings have failed me at times. I had to leave once to spend time with my family," Colmenares said. "I'm human. Yet I'm the only pastor in these communities, so I have to be strong to strengthen others, be a fortress for those who are weak."

Colmenares said much of what has kept him going is the solidarity that has come from all corners. Cuban physicians set up a clinic next to the church. Students from a nearby university, their campus covered with mud, volunteered to sort and distribute emergency food. UNICEF provided school supplies so that classes in the parish school could begin in mid-January, welcoming dozens of new students from neighboring towns where schools no longer exist.

And a church-sponsored organization based in Caracas has also lent a helping hand. Ecumenical Action-ACT (EA-ACT) has provided emergency food, water, and medical supplies for distribution by the parish. On January 21, EA-ACT airlifted several thousand pounds of supplies into Naiguatá on a French helicopter operated by the Venezuelan Air Force. On a separate helicopter flight, EA-ACT Director Manuel Larreal, accompanied by three representatives of the Christian Commission for Development (CCD) in Honduras, surveyed the disaster from the air. They flew into Naiguatá and Carmen de Uria to meet with parish workers and government officials leading the relief effort.

The three CCD staff, veterans of emergency work following Hurricane Mitch in Central America at the end of 1998, are helping Venezuelan members of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a Geneva-based international alliance of churches and church-sponsored relief agencies, set up an organized response to the emergency and make long-terms plans for the months and years of reconstruction ahead.

After the trip to survey damage throughout Vargas, Maynor Ceron, CCD's director of policies and strategies, said he was impressed with the level of cooperation among government agencies, churches, non-governmental organizations, and the Venezuelan military. "It's particularly fascinating to see the church and the military working together to help people," Ceron said.

Cooperation between the church and the military seems strange after a recent war of words between President Hugo Chavez, a former military officer elected to office a year ago, and top Catholic leaders like Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco. The prelate opposed a new constitution which Chavez submitted successfully to voters on December 15, the day of the most seriously flooding. Velasco afterward claimed the president's arrogance "provoked the wrath of God," resulting in the disaster. Chavez in turn suggested that Velasco needed an exorcist.

At the grassroots, however, such name-calling seems far away. While the military is in control of the region, Colmenares is treated with respect, even deference, by both officers and troops. "The armed forces asked the church for help," Colmenares said. "This tragedy is bigger than any single institution can manage, and we work well together. There may be political problems at times between some bishops and the president, but when the words end, we extend the hand again."

President Chavez extended his hand on Sunday, visiting the Catuche neighborhood in Caracas, a hillside slum where hundreds of homes were destroyed but only about 15 people died, largely because a church-sponsored neighborhood organization spread the alarm quickly. Several neighborhood groups, including AE-ACT, are working together on plans to rebuild, in an environmentally responsible manner, what homes they can in Catuche.

"Count on us, father," said Chavez as he embraced Jose Virtuoso, the Jesuit priest behind the unique neighborhood organization, as the two stood before a cheering crowd. "We're going to work with you in this project, with the help of God and this united people."

At a neighborhood center, the president studied maps of the ravine with a team of architects and urban planners working on the project.

"We should send people from here to other places where people are just laying in hammocks, being lazy, waiting for someone else to solve their problems," Chavez told project organizers. "This is a project that should be multiplied."

At the end of his tour of the neighborhood, Chavez stood on a platform surrounded by government ministers and military officials, and praised the neighborhood group. "Where there is social organization, we are ready and willing to confront whatever comes our way. I like this project because it's built on community organization," the president said.

Chavez, a charismatic populist who has wide support among Venezuela's poor, said reconstruction efforts in many communities affected by December's disaster were set back by "a lack of participation. The people want to participate but no one will let them." He compared the situation to a woman at a party whom no one will invite to dance. "For a long time, no one has asked the people to dance," Chavez said. "Well, we are going to dance with the people, and a very close dance it will be, as it should be. We're going to dance closely together."

Chavez, a former army colonel who led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, enjoys wide support among Venezuela's poor. They like his promises to reform inefficient and corrupt public institutions and improve the lives of the poor majority of Venezuela's 25 million people. Yet the country's economic elites and many political observers worry that Chavez is accruing too much power.

In Carmen de Uria, Carlos Garcia spent Sunday with his brothers trying to dig out a pick-up truck of his that he believes can be salvaged from the mud. "What saved us is that Chavez was in charge," Garcia said. "If [former President Rafael] Caldera had still been in office, we'd all be dying of hunger and thirst out here."

Paul Jeffrey is visiting Venezuela as the ACT-Church World Service Press Officer.