Chavez's Caracas Capers

Article excerpt

Byline: John Thomson, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The drive to Caracas from Maiquetia Airport is dangerous at night and unsightly by day. Thugs - often dressed as police - stop vehicles, rob passengers and steal their cars. Surrounding hills hold a seemingly impossible number of squalid ranchos - shack-filled ghettos - home to a million or more desperately poor Venezuelan peasants, who have become President Hugo Chavez's core support.

Caracas can seem hardly changed from 10 years ago. There are 5 times more vehicles on the same streets, now hellishly potholed. But standing on one of the middle-upper class hills in Chuao district overlooking the city, the capital looks like the energetic, exciting city of yore. It isn't.

Caracas is on a seemingly unstoppable downward slide. The invading poor have endangered the city of 6 million as never before. The wealthy (those not seeking refuge in southern Florida, Colombia or Spain) lead a semi-surrealistic existence reflecting a sense of smiling through the ever-increasing gloom, plus a devout dream that somehow, someday Venezuela will be rid of Mr. Chavez, socialism and insecurity.

During two weeks, I conducted 37 interviews and attended a major conference sponsored by the premier economic, political and social analytical group, Veneconomia.com. All but three individuals believed the opposition should essentially wait out Mr. Chavez's demise.

The coming state and municipal elections on Nov. 23 will be an indicator of how low the country and its president has sunk in nearly 10 years of autocratic rule. Mr. Chavez is doing so much damage to himself and the economy, most say, that he will self-destruct. They simply do not believe he and his Cuban and Iranian allies can create an iron-fisted police state.

Electoral prospects for the opposition indeed look positive. Most professional observers believe anti-Chavez candidates will take eight to 13 of the country's 23 governorships, plus hundreds of mayoral contests. They then look to legislative elections in 2010 as the next step in an inexorable decline of the former lieutenant colonel whose approval rating currently hovers just above 50 percent. Once Mr. Chavez loses a large number of seats in the National Assembly, they believe the finish will come when he runs for re-election in 2012.

While patience can clearly be a virtue, the attitude seems to a visitor more like a misty, delusory political dream these days in Caracas. Consider:

Overall inflation is running at 36 percent and is heading for 50 percent.

Inflation of consumables - the stuff on which people subsist - is 50 percent and heading for 100 percent.

Insecurity is the greatest concern of Caracenos as their city sports the highest murder rate - 132 per 100,000 inhabitants - virtually in the world, with the majority of killings affecting the poor.

Corruption is so rampant the average citizen must usually pay from 100 to 300 bolivares ($25 to $75) to renew the mandatory cedula identity card.

Nonprivileged citizens express a weary, fear-ridden sense of what lies ahead. One man said, The cost of food, when it is available, rises daily. We can't keep up. I fear for my family, and not just for their safety.

The political opposition remains in dismal disarray. Aging politicians, remnants of Venezuela's nearly 50 years of democratic rule, stand for little else than a return to his/her share of the spoils that Mr. Chavez is hoarding to himself, his military, socialist and Cuban cohorts.

Fortunately, the professional/intellectual side of the opposition, plus committed cadres of young office-seekers, have injected a level of fresh thinking and selflessness to the process. …