The jangle of rusty traffic and street vendors echoes off bleak apartment blocks. We are standing outside the last stop on the Metro at El Valle, south Caracas. A call on a cellphone finds Cletalina Noeman in the crowd, a robust and energetic woman who will be our guide. A few bone-crunching minutes on a bus, and we alight at a disused gas station. According to Cletalina this was once the haunt of drug dealers and thieves. Now its shadowy innards have been daubed with the word ‘Tupamaros’ – urban guerrillas, of a sort.
Behind the gas station rises a buttress of brickwork, corrugated iron, cable, razor wire, planks and rubble, speckled with rendering in bright colours. It gives the overall impression of an enormous ochre hive.
Near the garage is a path. As we climb up it, a kind of peace descends. We reach a locked gateway set into a whitewashed wall. Away from it runs a horizontal track lined with wooden shacks that remind me distantly of Tombstone, Arizona. At the end is what might well have been the saloon, garlanded with flowers.
A large and noisy family greets us. I am invited inside to sit beside Amador Villareal, the pater familias. He tells me that his family has been here for little more than a year. In this time they have built the foundations and the wooden house, connected the water, electricity, sanitation; installed a kitchen, bathroom, some monumental items of furniture, a water feature devoted to the Virgin Mary. They have succeeded, he says, because they have occupied a vacant plot together with some 200 neighbours. This entitles them to claim ownership under Bolivarian urban land-rights law, with the help of the local Mesa de Tierra (‘Land Rights Round Table’), and perhaps eventually to form a neighbourhood assembly. Amador says that in all his 82 years he has never felt better.
Solid villas, vacant ruins
Amid laughter and invitations to return, we move on. When the path runs horizontally, rooftops are to one side of us, basements to the other, so steep is the incline. We call at a few more homes. One is filled with groceries – the neighbourhood mercalito, an outlet for the Mercal system of cheap-food distribution. Another shelters a dispirited parrot, satellite TV and a birthday cake. Some of the houses are solid, substantial villas, armed with savage dogs. Others are vacant ruins.
We reach a slab of concrete that leans against the precipitous hillside. It is a road. Jeeps, on the brink of overturning, heave passengers up and down from the nearest bus stop or Metro station. They betray the inner structure of the hive. The closer you get to the top – still way above us – the nearer you are to the bottom of its social scale, and to the likes of those who once made a bid for the disused garage down below. Caracas is reputed to have more gun crime per head than anywhere else in the world, and this is where a good deal of it happens.
Across the road is an octagonal brick building set on a promontory like a Chinese lantern. Buildings just like this can been seen in barrios all over the city. It should be a clinic for the primary healthcare programme, but here it remains fenced off and empty – as yet there is no equipment.
We enter a house that has become the neighbourhood diner. A softly-spoken woman, who explains her work with great care, prepares the food. Here, every day, free meals are served to perhaps 200 people who would otherwise go hungry. By providing against hunger, they say, the community can confront its own failings.
Straight up the concrete road, and we branch out again along a horizontal path, around a humming pump-house built by the neighbourhood Mesa de Agua (‘Water Round Table’). The path is paved and spotlessly clean. Children play on climbing frames; teenagers practise dance steps.
The home of Franklin Machado is spacious, boasting (like many barrio houses) a panoramic view – out over the highways that occupy the flat land everywhere, to the outskirts of the city and the forested hillsides beyond. It brings to mind a medieval hilltop town in Italy.
Half of Franklin’s floor is occupied by crates – tools of his trade selling salted plantain chips. The other half has chairs and an ample kitchen, where he clatters around preparing coffee – when not distracted by plaintive calls from his mother upstairs. Franklin has been enrolled for some time in the Misión Ribas adult education scheme, and he receives a small grant for doing so. He and Cletalina Noemon settle down to describe to me the world as they see it.
‘You might say the Bolivarian Revolution is starting from scratch,’ says Franklin, ‘to make what should really have been made in the first place – a free America, a Venezuela that develops for the benefit of all, not just a few... Take machismo, for example, that kind of thoughtlessness that has been as common here as elsewhere on the continent. Today, the most manly person is not necessarily the one who has the most children, drinks the most alcohol or lifts the heaviest weights. He is the one who knows his responsibilities for what happens around him, for his family and community.’
‘We who live in the barrios and work on these issues,’ says Cletalina, ‘we are often attacked by outsiders. Do you know why? Because they don’t want us to do what we have to do, which is to unite.’
‘We didn’t go through all those manipulations of the Fourth Republic [before 1998] just to be politically manipulated now,’ says Franklin. ‘The way I see it, I am taking advantage of new opportunities not just for myself, but for the whole of my society – for a better, more human way of living.’
‘A lot of awareness has been created,’ says Cletalina. ‘It’s not like what it was before, when people would say: “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine too.” There was a lot of egoism, selfishness. That is slowly being reduced. If something happens “out there” now it’s not just “their” problem, it concerns us all. In the same spirit we participated in the World Social Forum here in Caracas just recently.’
Living without a lie
‘I worked for private businesses for 15 years,’ says Franklin. ‘The social, political side of things didn’t interest me at all. Then came the Caracazo [in 1989]. That changed the attitude of a lot of Venezuelans. People like us realized that we were living with a lie – all those neoliberal policies that were supposed to be good for the country but were bad for us. What I’ve learned has changed my conduct, my way of thinking. We are slowly constructing a new way of life.
‘Both Chávez and the opposition claim to speak for all Venezuelans. But all Venezuelans have different opinions. I can’t say all Venezuelans support Chávez, because I know they don’t. But those of us who do, at the grassroots, want him to continue. Make no mistake: if Chávez turns bad, we shall get rid of him.’
He unpacks a Chávez ‘Action Man’ doll that was the country’s best seller last Christmas (see front cover image). It has a battery-driven voice box which, with very little prompting, issues a lengthy and unstoppable patriotic harangue from somewhere in the vicinity of its backside.
We head for Cletalina’s home, where her daughter gives dancing classes. Two of her sons are priests in a cult that comes from Ghana; there’s a grotto of pebbles in one corner, a shrine to the Virgin Mary in another. Anyone who suggests that there’s a Chávez ‘personality cult’ in the barrios of Venezuela has never been there – or witnessed the vast array of cults that Chávez would have to contend with. Here, at least, images of him are scarce.
I go outside. Carmen Sulaibera is standing on the pathway. A strikingly handsome, sorrowful-looking woman in her seventies, the inside of her tiny house has been filled with healthcare posters, basic medical supplies and a couch for the neighbourhood clinic. Like many others, she says, she has discovered the lasting rewards of being valued by her community for the contribution she is now able to make.
Behind a curtain lives a Cuban doctor, who arrives as we talk. He speaks with calm assurance about the chronic illness, the influenza and fever, the asthma and infection that afflict his patients – though he makes no mention of Aids. He has lived and worked here for almost three years now and misses his family with painful intensity. But he can think of no better way of employing his skills, and he knows of no more needy or appreciative community.
We tumble back down the hillside, past the gas station, into a bus, onto the sleek Metro and out along the car-clogged streets of downtown Caracas, the electrified fences and iris-recognition security systems of what suddenly feels like a petrified ghetto.