Hero of the Shanty Towns: Grace Livingstone in Venezuela Finds That, While the Liberal Middle Class Has Deserted Chavez, the Poor Haven't
Livingstone, Grace, New Statesman (1996)
The guidebooks tell you not to talk politics in Venezuela. But when I arrived in Caracas on the first anniversary of a failed coup against the populist president, Hugo Chavez, I found that everybody had their piece to say about his "Bolivarian revolution". The first people I talked to were a group of charity workers. All had voted for Chavez -- who was elected with a landslide both in 1998 and 2000 -- but none intended to again. The economy was in a mess, they said, his policies for the poor were tokenistic and his language was inflammatory. Only the young black receptionist was of a different opinion. "I am a Chavista. He talks our language. He's not like other politicians who talk about 'fiscal' this, 'economic' that. He speaks like us."
Returning to my hostel that evening, I ask the nightwatchman about support for Chavez. He points to the shanty towns that are built precariously all the way up the red-earth mountains which encircle Caracas, and says: "You see those ranchos up there? The people who live there support Chavez."
Why? The prices of basic foodstuffs -- maize flour, milk and beans -- have been controlled, he says. The enrolment fee for state schools has been abolished and medicine and food in hospitals is now free, (although there are worsening shortages). Furthermore, an urban land law has given property titles to shanty town-dwellers.
It is 11 April, one year to the day after a group of army officers arrested Chavez and the head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce dissolved the national assembly and declared himself president. After people flooded on to the streets and many army units remained loyal to the government, Chavez was released two days later. "You should have seen this mountainside. It was like a giraffe with moving spots," says the watchman, describing how the people rushed down from the hills to protest against the coup.
Of the six cooks and cleaners here, five support Chavez. "I live in the shanty towns," one cleaner tells me. "Before the politicians robbed us, things never changed, same old crap ... Now my daughter can go to school all day. The rich, they don't understand." As we talk, the manager approaches: the women quickly change the subject. I have the impression that there is a sharp division of views here, along class lines.
The next morning, I ask the waitress serving breakfast what she thinks. She draws up a chair and lights a cigarette: "I am 51. I haven't voted since I was 19 years old, but now if I get the chance I will vote for him."
Many have joined Bolivarian Circles (which take their name from Simon Bolivar, who liberated the region from Spain in the 1800s), groups that proselytise and carry out social work in the community. Although they encourage political participation, the circles have a client relationship with the government, on which they depend for funds. …