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The Gambler

1.

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, I went to Petare and toured the local branches of the various social welfare organizations created by Chávez in the course of his nearly seven years in power. My guide was María Milagros Reyes, a tough, enthusiastic woman from the top of one of the barrio’s highest hills. Reyes is the director for ideology in Petare of the Comando Maisanta, an organization that was first created last year to get out the vote for a referendum on whether Hugo Chávez should remain in power.

Reyes has a position of some rank, and I worried that in her presence people might not want to express the doubts and reservations about Chávez I had heard among the citizenry, and even the chavista leadership, in other barrios, but in Petare that morning no one I met seemed to have any doubts—neither a young man in a storefront equipped by the government with five computer terminals, who was receiving free instruction on how to use the Internet and how to fill out on-line employment applications, nor the working women in a small office in that same compound, looking to place their children in one of the chavista child-care cooperatives run by housewives in every neighborhood.

And there was no mistaking the vigorous enthusiasm of a group of twenty or so elderly people in white T-shirts who could not be stopped from interrupting their morning calisthenics in a parking lot to explain how, later in the week, they would board a nearby bus for their weekly excursion—to-day to a park, some other time to the beach. “They even take our blood pressure now before we start to exercise!” one woman explained to enthusiastic nods.

Chávez’s fractured opposition unanimously condemns the various barrio programs as populist asistencialismo—welfarism—and on one level they can be seen as something even worse than that: a greedy attempt by Chávez to replace the health, housing, and education ministries that are the legacy of the previous regime with his own programs, to his exclusive political benefit. But in Petare the several misiones—the name for the most lavishly financed national programs—can make such lofty criticisms seem heartless, or beside the point.

I went to one of the Petare outlets of the Misión Mercal, a network of stores that has put basic foodstuffs at subsidized prices within walking distance of most poor Venezuelans. At the cash register of a refurbished warehouse, a woman bought rice, dried beans, and a handsome, fat chicken at cost. There was meat, too. Chávez is trying to undercut the traditionally conservative cattle ranchers by importing Uruguayan and Argentine meat for the Mercales, and since the Misión Mercal does not have to pay duties on the beef, and gets to charge the cost of distribution to the government, this is easy. Still, the meat looked excellent, and a man in the checkout line proudly stressed that it was imported—no gristly second-rate meat for the poor under Chávez.

Johnel Guzmán, a thoughtful man in his twenties who was the store’s assistant manager, cleared his throat in embarrassment before allowing that he had never held a job before. Now he and two of the cashiers were taking courses toward a college-equivalency certificate, and receiving monthly stipends from the Misión Sucre, an education program. The quality of the education provided may be terrible, as its critics claim, and the need for adequate elementary schooling may be far more urgent, but at the Mercal the young people’s energy and impatience were almost palpable: for years their lives had been at a standstill, and now, thanks to Chávez, they were on the move.

My guide, Reyes, had agreed to wait outside or linger in the distance while I talked to people at our various stops. At the last one, however, she introduced me to her friend Alexandra Castillo, a quiet, very bright twenty-one-year-old who was the coordinator of one of the Petare UBEs, or Electoral Battle Units, and stayed for a conversation about political organizing, an activity both women clearly loved. The goal set by the Comandos Maisanta, they said, was to get ten million votes for Chávez in the 2006 election, or 69 percent of the vote, and in Petare the overlapping leadership of the Comandos and the local programs were working hard to deliver their quota.

We sat in a shack behind a roadside empanada stand owned by Alexandra’s mother. It was a dim, bare place, but it was refreshingly out of the glare of the sun, and equipped with a blackboard and a couple of handwritten charts of the local organizations and their tasks; a headquarters of sorts. Every once in a while a woman would pop her head in the doorway to say hello, and eventually three of them lingered to chat with us. Castillo was studying under the Misión Sucre; another woman, Elisa Mari, was building a home with materials provided by the chavista municipality. A third—a lively woman called “Blondie” because of her light-brown hair—was a diabetic, and thanks to the Misión Barrio Adentro, which has placed doctors in small residence-and-clinic modules in just about every poor neighborhood in most Venezuelan cities, she no longer had to travel to the local hospital and wait in line for her insulin and needles.

Barrio Adentro is the most controversial misión, because it is staffed and organized almost entirely by Cuban medical personnel, but together with a related specialized surgery program, it may also be the one that helps the Comandos turn out the most votes. Mari had already traveled to Cuba for a free hip-replacement operation, and would soon be returning for eye surgery. What did these women like most about Chávez, I wondered; the health care, the housing program? “Ay, todo!” Blondie exclaimed, hugging herself. “Everything: his eyes, his mouth, the way he talks…. I’m just in love with him! He’s a gorgeous, beautiful negrito.”

A great many of Chávez’s opponents laugh at the fervor expressed by women like Blondie, their blind adoration of a man who loves to serenade the audience at every public opportunity, get himself up in military uniform, and flash a Cartier watch on his wrist, a different one for every occasion. The opposition lives in a permanent state of rage too at the regime’s corruption, its autocratic use of public funds, and Chávez’s determined assault on the institutions that make representative democracy possible (he prefers his own brand of democracia participativa, which has little room for opposition parties or civic rights). But people like Reyes and Alexandra Castillo are quick to sense the disrespect toward them in the former ruling elite’s seething anger, the racism that leads them to call the dark-skinned Chávez the mico mandante—the order-giving monkey, in place of mi comandante—or speak with loathing of the zambo, or half-breed, who has empowered other zambos like him to feel at home in their restaurants and beachside resorts. Their restaurants!

Chavistas in the barrios answered the criticisms I proposed with a question: “Y ellos, ¿Qué hicieron?” (“And they, what did they do?”) What did the people in the tall apartment buildings ever do for us? Why, in fact, did the elite now in exile from the halls of power rule in the waning decades of the last century with such careless disregard for the 45 percent or so of the population who earn barely enough to keep themselves fed and clothed, and for the approximately 20 percent—the statistic waxes and wanes according to the price of oil—who cannot lay their hands on enough money to consume the equivalent of 2,200 calories a day?

2.

To its great good fortune, the members of the current opposition to Hugo Chávez do not have to answer these questions, because its leadership emerged only during the last five years, and comes largely from the ranks of businessmen and former businessmen who had virtually no earlier political involvement. But to the degree that they are nearly all members of the upper classes, they are deeply distrusted by the chavistas, who are overwhelmingly poor. Non-chavista politicians either lost the respect of the electorate during the meltdown of the old party system, in the years preceding the arrival of Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution, or are too young and inept to enjoy credibility. And many sullied forever their democratic credentials by showing unrestrained glee at the climax of a military coup that removed Chávez from power for forty-eight hours in April 2002. They hardly register as an alternative: it is widely agreed that the 59 percent of the vote which represents Chávez’s largest victory at the polls so far means 41 percent of the electorate voted against him, but not really for anyone else. Having started out as a force capable of mobilizing half a million people or more on the eve of the coup in Caracas, and of gathering at least three million signatures the following year for a petition to hold a referendum on Chávez’s continued rule, his opposition is currently at a loss.

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