A Silent Majority Finds Its Voice: Venezuela's Hidden People-The Majority Who Are of Indian or Black Descent-Have Found a Champion in Hugo Chavez. but Can He Survive? (Features)

Article excerpt

The great city of Caracas spreads over innumerable mountainous hills, and in the rainy season the peaks poke up through the clouds that hover in the valleys below. Several million people live on these steep slopes in barrios, a word which, when translated into English as "shanty towns", does little justice to the reality. These are not just settlements of corrugated iron and wattle and daub, but mostly well-established homes of cheap breeze-blocks set in concrete frames. Their defining characteristic is close proximity, each tiny habitation piled high above the next, fighting for space.

A mass of humanity passes by, inperpetual movement. Some are white or of mixed race, but the great majority are dark skinned. Venezuela is poised geographically between Brazil and the islands of the Caribbean, and the children of slaves and native Americans far outnumber those of the European settlers. In one of the richest countries in Latin America, they live in permanent and absolute poverty. Many scratch a living as hawkers in the valleys below.

The air is clear, and the views are breathtaking. The atmosphere is that of a hill town in medieval Europe, though the facilities are more modern. Water and electricity are notionally available, but rubbish often piles up on the steep stone staircases and along the narrow terraces that criss-cross these immense urban conglomerations. These are unplanned pedestrian precincts, for no bus or car could negotiate these hills. Security is the principal concern; iron grilles and locked doors are the most important and expensive element in house construction.

From their hillside eyries, the poor look down on the settlements of the rich, the tiny minority of Venezuelans--mostly white--who live in sprawling condominiums withmaids and swimmingpools, and drive to work in air-conditioned cars along spreading motorways. South Africa springs to mind: Soweto versus the white suburbs of Johannesburg. There is no legal apartheid in Latin America, but it exists all the same. The white settlers have ruled the continent since the time of the conquistadors, and, in countries such as Venezuela, a steady stream of European immigrants over the past two centuries has reinforced the white elite and its inherent racism, a phenomenon that dominates the country's politics.

Three years ago, after a decade of crisis and the collapse of the old and corrupted political parties, the democratic political system threwup a man of the people as president. Of black and native American ancestors, and voicing the rough rhetoric of a provincial from the interior of the country, Hugo Chavez began to organise a revolution. A popular and charismatic former colonel, he recognised the affinities that existed between the soldiery and the people from whom they had sprung. Taking his cue from various 19th-century visionaries and revolutionary nationalists, including Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan liberator of swathes of Latin America, he set about breaking down the barriers between the armed forces and the rest of so ciety, deploying soldiers as the spearhead of development projects. A "Bolivar plan" was established, to use army barracks as schools, to share military medical facilities with the general population and to try to kick-start a moribund public sector into more dynamic action. It echoes S imon Bolivar's own alliance between army and people at the start of the 19th century, which made independence possible.

Discontent with the Chavez revolution among the country's white elite, from senior generals to conservative businessmen, was evident from the start. One counter-revolutionary coup d'etat failed in April -- destroyed by just the alliance between soldiers and people that Chavez had been so painstaltingly constructing -- but another attempt is all too likely, possibly within weeks.

Chavez's experiment is the most interesting Latin American project since Castro's Cuban revolution. …