Frontline World

VENEZUELA, A Critical Turning Point, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
Venezuela: A Critical Turning Point
My Country's Rise and Fall
Hugo Chavez Comes to Power
The President's Foes Strike Back
Tapping a Nationalist Vein
Chavez's Remarkable Staying Power
A Clash Between Rich and Poor
Venzuela's Next Chapter
What is the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program?
A Clash Between Poor and Rich

View From a Shantytown: The Poor Bear the Burden

Shantytown in Petare, east Caracas

Shantytown in Petare, east Caracas, April 2003.
In April 2003, a government supporter named William Contreras offered me a tour of one of the barrios that ring downtown Caracas. Catia is among the largest of the burgeoning shantytowns that encircle the loop of four-lane highways, luxurious shopping malls and residential high-rises at the heart of the capital. On the drive there, Contreras totted up everything the Chavez government had done for the poor. "Things have improved since the new government (came in)," he argued. "Before, nobody listened to us; but now, we are organized, we have created cooperatives and the government is giving us material to improve our lives."

Contreras, an administrator for the largest cemetery in the city, has found a place within the new regime as a Bolivarian Circle leader. As we drove to a community meeting through the shantytown's medieval-style alleyways, Contreras told me that the Bolivarian Circles have organized cooperatives of people to sweep the highways and perform repairs on public lighting. "The cooperatives do the work, the municipality pays them, and they distribute the money," he said.

Through such efforts, people are becoming small entrepreneurs. Even though Contreras's own salary as a public employee has shrunk in real terms -- the value of the bolivar has fallen by 65 percent since 2001 -- he didn't blame the loss on Chavez's leadership. Like others in Catia, Contreras blamed the rich. Chavez supporters have come up with a new slogan to articulate their undying support for the president. "Con hambre y sin empleo, con Chavez me resteo." ("Even hungry and unemployed, I stay with Chavez.")

Poor people I interviewed also credited Chavez with a new freedom from discrimination. A street vendor who sold pirated CDs downtown told me that under previous governments the police harassed him all the time. "Now, I can sell my wares anywhere," he said. An old homeless man on the street near the presidential palace added that before Chavez was elected he could be arrested for vagrancy. "But now, nobody bothers me," he said. "Now, I can even approach the president, like when I saw him the other day at a rally near here. I asked him for a place at a retirement home. He told me, 'Viejito ["Old one"], don't worry, we'll find you a place.'"

View From Chacoa: The Rich Line Up Against Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution

Chacao is Caracas's Upper East side and the epicenter of resistance to Chavez's ideas.

Chacao is Caracas's Upper East side -- a playground of banks, haute cuisine and upscale apartments -- and the epicenter of resistance to Chavez's ideas.
In colonial times, Chacao was a leafy village on the outskirts of Caracas, surrounded by haciendas. There the aristocracy held pleasant chamber concerts where the likes of Simón Bolívar experienced their first romantic escapades. Chacao today -- with its banks, fancy restaurants and million-dollar condominiums -- still looks like a mini-Manhattan. And it still is the playground of the Venezuelan wealthy and middle class, what remains of them, that is.

In the early 1990s, Chacao became briefly famous for electing a former Miss Universe, Irene Saez, as its first mayor. She went on to compete unsuccessfully against Hugo Chavez for the presidency in 1998. "Compared to beauty contests, politics is a children's game," the beauty queen said then. (I didn't find any of her former constituents who agree with that statement today.)

Chacao has been the epicenter of resistance to Chavez, but now even its residents seem tired of the battle. When I visited last spring, less than 10,000 people turned out for a rally called by the opposition on an especially significant date -- April 11, the anniversary of the violent confrontation that nearly resulted in Chavez's toppling. After several hours of shared intense emotion, in which the dead of a year ago were tearfully mourned, I was surprised to see people simply packing up their blue, red, and yellow flags to go home.

The failure of the general strike had by then tarnished the reputations of the leaders of the opposition, several organizers explained. Second thoughts about the wisdom of the opposition's strategy also had deflated the movement. After all, the strike had cost the country $7 billion in expected oil revenues. With technocrats like these to eviscerate the economy, many began asking, who needed to worry about Chavez's foibles?

On April 13, 2003, a group of pro-Chavez counterdemonstrators gathered downtown on Avenida Bolívar -- as if to challenge their well-heeled neighbors in Chacao directly -- to celebrate the return of the president in what was called "The Feast of the Heroic People." Tens of thousands of people turned up beneath the towering cityscape of downtown Caracas. But this was a small crowd compared with the throngs I'd seen turn out in support of Chavez the year before. The most cheerful and energetic demonstrators were hundreds of antiglobalization foreigners who'd attended a Bolivarian forum, where representatives of the international left had come again to praise Chavez's nose-thumbing at the United States. Many of these demonstrators carried Cuban and Venezuelan flags. It appeared that the pro-Chavez forces had also exhausted the appetite for theatrics in the street -- leaving the task of defending the revolution to stray bands of foreigners.

NEXT: Venezuela's Next Chapter