A Nation That Shows How Oil Money Can Create a Social Revolution for the Poor

By Hari, Johann | The Independent (London, England), August 19, 2005 | Go to article overview
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A Nation That Shows How Oil Money Can Create a Social Revolution for the Poor


Hari, Johann, The Independent (London, England)


Latin America is a graveyard of false prophets. On every corner there is a reminder of the political Messiahs who failed. Bolvar, Che, Evita, Fidel " all are remembered in statues and wall paintings that look out over a continent now almost as poor and unfree as Africa.

But something is rumbling here in the barrios around Caracas, something that is causing tremors in the White House. A Salsa revolution is spreading out from the slums of Venezuela, and it is the first in Latin America to be both totally democratic and, gradually, startlingly effective.

But to begin this story, I have to take you on a tour of the Old Venezuela. Barrio Nueva Tacagua is a shanty-town in the high hills that sprawl around Caracas, built by the government at the height of the 1970s oil boom. The hundreds of homes here are made of pressed cardboard and rusting tin. They are connected by paths made of more of the same, with the odd bedspread tossed in.

The barrio nestles in what looks like a river of trash and shit. Because there is no rubbish collection, because the sewers cannot cope with solids, everything is simply thrown further downhill, in the hope it will rot away. Children with old, lined faces play there.

Gladys de Tarate lives in a swollen sardine tin with her four children, her husband, and her mother. She tells me: 'This land was never meant to be built on. It is not safe. We are on a fault-line, and we feel like we are waiting for the next mudslide, like the ones in 1999 that killed tens of thousands of people.'

But there are more immediate worries: when it rains, the water crashes downhill so fast it can carry cars and homes with it. Last month, it took a small girl.

In the early Eighties, the government sent some trailers here and boasted about it for years " but they were unbearably hot, 'like ovens on the inside', one man explains, and had to be trashed. The public sector was virtually non-existent: nobody here saw a doctor except in the most extreme emergencies, and the school closed for three years after the roof caved in.

This is the life that was given to the 80 per cent of mostly brown-skinned Venezuelans, locked out of the country's white oligarchy under 40 years of corrupt pseudo-democracy.

That Venezuela is collapsing. Not just metaphorically but literally. The barrios are sagging down the hills; homes disappear in landslides every other month. And " as a result of the slow-burn social revolution here " these communities are (at last) being relocated or rebuilt as part of what everybody here calls 'The Process.'

To understand how The Process began, you have to go back to 1991 " the year the old Venezuela reached its nadir. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded the elected government of Carlos Perez cut the tiny thread of government support provided to places like Barrio Nueva Tacagua. As ever, they put their own neoliberal ideology " small government, low taxes, make everyone pay for public services " above democracy.

Even though Perez had campaigned on precisely the opposite platform, he gave in. The price of food quadrupled, unemployment soared, and the meager scraps of public services available to the poor were cut. The barrios erupted.

The government's response? A massacre of over 500 people. Residents of this barrio remember machine-gun toting soldiers arriving on the day of the uprising. They shot a man and tossed his body downhill.

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A Nation That Shows How Oil Money Can Create a Social Revolution for the Poor
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