Carnival in Caracas

The Politics of the Barrios of Venezuela

by Talton F. Ray
California, 211 pp., $7.00

Conflict and Political Change in Venezuela

by Daniel H. Levine
Princeton, 285 pp., $13.00

Political Mobilization of the Venezuelan Peasant

by John Duncan Powell
Harvard, 259 pp., $8.50

¿Socialismo para Venezuela?

by Teodoro Petkoff
Fuentes (Caracas), 139 pp.

Petroleo y Dependencia

by Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo
Sintesis Dos Mil (Caracas), 248 pp.

During his early days as a journalist the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, had come to regard Caracas as “an apocalyptic, unreal, inhuman city.”1 Reporting for the Venezuelan magazine Momento, he wrote about the military and popular revolts that led to the overthrow in January, 1958, of Venezuela’s last dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jimenez. He witnessed street fighting in the shadows of the huge government office towers in the plaza of Silencio, the siege by the mob of the headquarters of the dictator’s secret police, the Seguridad Nacional, and the riots a few months later that greeted Vice President Nixon as his motorcade edged its way through hostile crowds massed in front of the slatternly furniture and appliance stores that line Avenida Sucre in the working class district of Catia. That seemed a time of hope, when peasants came to the cities to build new houses and democratic politicians returned from jail and exile to form new governments, when Venezuela, as García Márquez told me later, was “the freest country on earth.”

For nearly 400 years Caracas was a tile-roofed town picturesquely cradled in a narrow valley. Only in recent decades has Venezuela’s oil prosperity crowded the valley floor with luxury apartments and offices connected by looping freeways that twist like roller coasters amid such landmarks as Sears (the most profitable overseas branch), the headquarters of Shell de Venezuela and Creole (Exxon) Petroleum, the old Nuevo Circo bullfight ring that is used these days for political rallies, and the twin sports stadiums built by Pérez Jimenez, who has lately made a political comeback.

The oil money has drawn great numbers of people into Caracas; Venezuela has had one of the world’s most intense peasant migrations to the cities of the twentieth century. The ravines descending into the Valley of Caracas, and the hillsides surrounding it, are covered with rancho squatter shacks that force their way into the asphalt city of public works and government budgets. The skyline of western Caracas is dominated by the tall public housing projects built by the dictator and called superbloques—fifty-one pastel-colored towers overlooking the acres of rancho shacks like stained temple monuments presiding over the rubble of a bombed city. In The Politics of the Barrios of Venezuela, one of the best of the many studies of Latin America’s urban squatters that have appeared in recent years, Talton F. Ray stresses “the close connection between political change and urbanization.” In Latin America during the past generation this has meant squatter land invasions at the time of revolutions and elections. With his intimate knowledge of the rancho slums gained in three years’ service with the volunteer organization Acción, Ray writes that the overthrow of Pérez Jimenez in 1958:

…ushered in a new and entirely unprecedented phase of [squatter] development. Restrictions on land settlement were immediately lifted, and families poured out of their crowded ranchos to grab up vacant land on the outskirts of the cities as…

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