Venezuela’s Slum Lord

A few of months ago, The New Yorker published an article by journalist Jon Lee Anderson on Venezuela’s most famous slum: the Tower of David. Originally built as headquarters for one of the country’s largest banks, today the Tower seems to symbolize late Hugo Chávez’s Revolution biggest failure.

As a Venezuelan, I’m very familiar with the country’s long lasting housing problems. During the post-war years, Venezuela’s capital Caracas became a magnet for people looking for opportunities and a better life. For many decades, oil rich Venezuela invested heavily in all kind of housing projects around the country, particularly in Caracas, projects that somehow and for some time accommodated many of the newcomers. However, it never was enough to alleviate the ever increasing demand for dwelling of a growing population always ahead of the curve. To this we must add the populism and corruption that has always characterized Venezuelan politicians, particularly during and after the 1970s, who thought that by sponsoring squatting and invasions of public and private lands they would easily solve the problem. Consequently, slums and shanty towns began to pop up everywhere, creating huge belt of poverty and crime around many of Venezuela’s most populated cities — something I witnessed as a young man many times.

In 1998, when Hugo Chávez won his first election, one of his campaign promises was to find a definitive solution to a by then chronic housing problem. Of course, such a solution never materialized — despite a good number of well-intended attempts that were crippled from the very beginning by corruption and/or ineptitude. On the contrary, what the so-called socialist government of Chávez did was to dig deeper into the failing policies of his predecessors, including squatting and invasions. No surprise then that while the alleged main goal of the so-called Revolutionary government has always been to promote social ownership, the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans only want “something [they] can call [their] own” — as Zaida Gómez, the store-owner interviewed by Anderson, put it candidly. The crying of this unfulfilled wish is something I’ve heard many times since I can remember — people who basically want a roof they can call their own.

Reading Anderson’s piece — and another one published last year by the NY Times — isn’t easy. Ours is a country that was a model for the whole hemisphere for many years. An emerging democracy, believed to be a forerunner of freedom and social-justice in a region in which the majority of its neighbors were ruled by either dictatorships or corrupt oligarchies, both from the left and the right. Of course, my generation — born and raised under the democratic system — came to realize early on that ours was a very weak democracy to say the least, plagued by social and economic troubles but mostly crippled by a clueless and stultified political class. If Chávez represented anything in contemporary Venezuelan history, it was the legacy of a failed national project and the flawed generation who was responsible for carrying on with it. In this sense, the Tower is not only a symbol of a failing populist Revolution and his colorful leader but also one of a frustrated national project.

It hurts to admit that for many years now the whole country has been on this slippery road towards becoming a slum of national proportions. Last year, almost 20,000 people died victims of crime-related violence. Despite declining poverty rates, the real economic situation of the country is far from the image of apparent prosperity that some on the left have try to convey outside its borders. As much-cited Mark Weisbrot’s paper concludes, most of the reduction in poverty is measured only in cash income — not a surprise giving the fact that the government has invested most of recent years’ oil revenues into a variety of social programs targeted to the country’s poorer. However, regarding the social benefits in the short run of these policies, they seem impossible to sustain in the long run. Inflation, insecurity, food shortages, dependence on imports (about 70% of the goods consumed are imported), and a dilapidated infrastructure are among the many problems that Venezuelans face today. Recently, the government was forced to devalue its currency 32% — just one of the many signs of economic trouble that seems to darken the country’s future, tied as it has always been to the ups and downs of commodity prices — i.e., oil. I should add to this the current political uncertainty created by Chávez’s passing and the transitional process during the last few months. In all honesty, Venezuela’s future seems as grim and surreal as the Tower’s story may appear to an unsophisticated reader.

From a faux Saudi Republic — as people used to call the country in the 1970s — Bolivar’s motherland has become just another failing Revolution. This may seem an obvious epilogue to many of Chávez’s critics — a very disingenuous and simplistic conclusion though. Chávez’s term wasn’t an isolated event, a singularity in Venezuela’s convulsive history. To look at Chávez’s failure without considering the long history of failing policies that preceded him — and made his tenure possible — is not only naive but more importantly counterproductive. As it has happened many times in the past, such attitude will only guarantee the eternal return of some populist savior — or saviors — willing to trade good wishes for all the power he/she can accumulate. However, what’s more unreassuring about Venezuela’s current situation is neither its eternal housing crisis nor its failing economy but the degree of  division and polarization that poisons its political and social environments. The country is a deeply divided nation that seems not to find a common project good enough to unify it and to satisfy all political and social actors. In this sense, the country is getting closer to that Schmittian point of no-return in which one side — whichever has the strong end of the rope — will do whatever it can to annihilate the other side. In this sense also, the Tower becomes a terrifying metaphor.