Caracas, cradled though it is in a lush green valley and separated from the Caribbean only by the lovely Monte Avila, is not a beautiful city. The business districts are a monument to mercenary urban development, and in general the capital of Venezuela is so lacking in planning that it can seem as if the very streets were about to collide with each other. The place is jarringly noisy and blatantly divided. The wealthier classes live on the Avila’s slopes, along streets shaded by lush trees, while the poor occupy the steep scarred hills that cup the rest of the Caracas valley, hills that seem to have been stripped clean of the smallest shrub, and are covered instead from base to peak with the tightly packed, bare, graceless dwellings of the poor. The hillsides tend to slump downward or sideways during the rainy season, bringing calamities with them, yet new arrivals set up camp here every day. From their pleasant apartment complexes or their office buildings on the valley floor, delightfully hospitable caraqueños will look fearfully toward the peopled landscape and plead with a visitor not to venture there: thieves, murderers, drug addicts, chavistas swarm in those heights, they warn, shuddering behind their grilled windows.
Up close, the barrios—in Venezuela this is the term for poor neighborhoods—look very different, a labyrinth of alleys and footpaths and stairways clambering up, to, and around bare brick houses that have been squeezed everywhere into alarmingly tight corners, crowded with activity. Children in neatly pressed uniforms climb back home from school, unemployed young men gather in the clearings to smoke and chat, and industrious women hurry past them, burdened with laundry or groceries. There are repair shops and bakeries and churches barely large enough for an altar and a few rows of pews, and, on the main thoroughfares, noisy buses that squeal and burp at every halt. Near the hillcrests, only ancient jeeps fitted with wooden benches in the back manage to carry passengers up and around the roads’ hairpin turns.
The largest number of barrios is to be found at the eastern end of the city, in the area of Petare, home to some 600,000 of the city’s four million inhabitants. This sprawling community is indeed poor, although in Venezuela, a country with a per capita income of $4,400, it is by no means the poorest. But my friends were right to say that crime and drugs are critical problems here. And Petare has chavistas, too—followers of President Hugo Chávez—possibly more chavistas per square foot, and more cohesively organized, than anywhere else in the country. It is in Petare that Hugo Chávez’s ambitious social welfare programs are implemented most ambitiously, because he has turned the poor into his de facto party, and as a result, whether his presidency stands or falls can be determined by the residents of this barrio, which vies for a place with three cities for the rank of Venezuela’s fourth-largest urban agglomeration.
One morning late in July,…
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