Dateline ACT Venezuela 4/00: Venezuela disaster challenges government

By Paul Jeffrey
Valencia, Venezuela, January 26, 2000

Cristina Gonzalez is waiting for the man she is sure will solve her problems.

Six weeks after she barely escaped from a wall of mud that entombed her house in the Venezuelan port city of La Guaira, Gonzalez sits in the middle of a sports stadium in Valencia, an industrial city 125 kilometers to the west of Caracas in the state of Carabobo. She's one of 780 people on the basketball court, which is divided into cubicles formed by bunk beds and blankets. Nearby are three of her children and eight grandchildren.

Gonzalez left La Guaira late the night of December 15, walking uphill through the rain toward Caracas. "We left with nothing, walking, walking," she said. "Finally the army picked us up and took us to Caracas. Then they brought us here. Now I'm waiting. There's nothing to do but wait."

Gonzalez said government employees have conducted countless surveys of the shelter residents, yet no specific plans for resettlement of the homeless families here have been announced. The local governor put in an appearance, but Gonzalez suggested that since none of people sheltered here are voters in the state of Carabobo, he wasn't very interested in their welfare.

"We've got no confidence in him or the other politicians. They just make promises they won't keep," Gonzalez said. "Who we're waiting for is the president. We trust him. The way he talks to us gives us confidence. We know he'll help us. There's always a rumor he's coming here, but we know he's had a lot to do since the tragedy and hasn't had time to come here yet."

It's true: since floods and mudslides killed at least 15,000 people in the north of Venezuela in mid-December, President Hugo Chavez has been a busy man. A former army paratrooper who broke into Venezuela's political scene eight years ago when he staged a failed military coup, Chavez is fiercely popular among poor people throughout the country. His hands-on approach to running government has earned him good marks from many. Often dressed in his trademark red beret, black combat boots and olive green uniform, Chavez has successfully managed a disaster that any government would have found difficult.

Besides Chavez, the most prominent star of the disaster response has been the Venezuelan military, which won kudos from all sides. Before the disaster struck, Chavez had already filled many government posts with officers and moved soldiers out of the barracks and into the streets as part of his "Plan Bolivar 2000." Under the program, some 100,000 soldiers rebuilt schools and roads and set up special markets where the poor could buy vegetables at subsidized prices.

"The army never had a social role before Chavez. If they went onto the streets it was to repress people," said Manuel Larreal, director of Ecumenical Action-ACT, a Caracas-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that is one of five Venezuelan members of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a Geneva-based international coalition of churches and church agencies responding to disasters.

Some church leaders worry about the enhanced profile enjoyed by the military under Chavez. "For Chavez there are only two kinds of people, competent military officers and incompetent civilians. Many of the officers are doing good work, but there are a lot of government posts that could be filled by civilians," said Joao Willig, a pastor in Valencia and president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Venezuela, another member of ACT-Venezuela.

The government's response to the disaster hasn't been flawless. Chavez at first denied reports that army troops had executed suspected looters and rapists caught in the coastal state of Vargas, then finally last week admitted it was possible and asked the Organization of American States to investigate. And in a fit of nationalism, he told the United States that Venezuela could do without help from U.S. soldiers, but then smoothed out relations in talks with the U.S. ambassador.

Despite his missteps, one year after Chavez was elected president, and just weeks after a new constitution he designed was overwhelming approved by voters, the former star baseball pitcher is one of the most popular politicians in Latin America. Yet as the folksy populist leader moves from managing emergency relief to long-term reconstruction of the country, he faces serious new challenges.

Like Cristina Gonzalez, the poor of Venezuela have placed a lot of trust in Chavez, and as time goes by they'll grow tired of waiting, so Chavez must deliver soon. More than 100,000 people remain living in official shelters, and many more are crowded into the homes of relatives and friends. The president has said that whoever wants to relocate to the interior of the country, he'll provide them with homes, work, and schools. If large numbers of them take him up on the offer, he'll need significant resources to provide the infrastructure for the immigrants.

Fortunately for Chavez, the price of petroleum, Venezuela's biggest export, has skyrocketed in recent months, and an expected $6 to $10 billion windfall in revenues from the state-controlled oil industry this year will certainly help pay the bill for relocating families. Gonzalez, for one, is ready to go anywhere her president offers her a fresh start. Anywhere but back home to the flood-bedeviled coast.

A woman living beside her, Marias Grimon, says she and her three children will go anywhere but the border with Colombia, one of the areas Chavez is trying to populate with the homeless, solving national security problems at the same time he resolves the problems of flood victims. "I'll go anywhere except the border with Colombia," said Grimon. "That's a dangerous place, filled with guerrillas. I'd rather go back to La Guaira than take my chances on the Colombian border."

While oil revenues may fill some immediate gaps, Chavez faces serious economic problems. Unemployment and inflation are up. The economy is shrinking. The government owes $3.6 billion this year on its $35 billion foreign debt. Besides those who lost houses to the flooding and mudslides, many more Venezuelans, three million in Caracas alone, live in substandard housing.

Chavez also must wrestle with a heritage of clientalism, a citizenry grown accustomed to political bosses providing favors to win votes. Four decades of such democratic but paternalistic rule, fueled by huge oil revenues, have left Venezuelans "accustomed to receiving everything without having to work for it," said Loida Valera, a pediatric endocrinologist and moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Venezuela, another ACT-Venezuela member.

"In some places, this dependency on the government means people don't want to get organized to solve their own problems, they'd rather just wait for the government to make decisions," Valera said. "This is a good moment to change that attitude. The challenge for the churches and NGOs is to help people learn to solve their own problems, to rebuild their own communities."

According to Jose Virtuoso, a Jesuit analyst and neighborhood activist in Caracas, the reconstruction period is a test for NGOs just as it is for President Chavez. "We've too often become mediators between civil society and the government rather than cultivating the growth of civil society," Virtuoso said. "Now's an opportunity to deepen the democratization of NGOs working with civil society."

Launem Silva, a volunteer with the Exeario Sosa Luján Popular Education Center, another ACT-Venezuela member, said the government realizes it can't handle the post-disaster situation on its own. "There's a new permeability in the government to participation by popular organizations and NGOs," she said. "This is an opportunity for us to legitimize in the government's eyes the work we've been doing for a long time."

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