Fleeing Venezuela's Floods And Finding A Home

Dusk is descending as the bus rounds the corner. Through the gloaming, however, Felix Soto Baez makes out the tidy blocks of garden apartments that will be assigned in just a few minutes to 264 families left homeless by Venezuela's flood and mud slide disaster on Dec. 15. Soto kisses his son Marcos, 4, sitting on his lap, and murmurs: "A new life."

As a soldier reads his name and assigns him an apartment, Soto, his wife, Jackeline Frias, and their five children forget about the plastic bags holding their only possessions--mostly donated food and clothing--and hurry inside the flat. Frias rushes about excitedly as she checks out the apartment's three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The children cannot wait to turn the faucets on and they shriek with delight as water gushes out. Their father flicks a switch, and his sober face breaks into a grin when a light goes on. "This is 30,000 times better than what we had," rejoices Soto, 48.

The Sotos are among some 150,000 refugees being relocated to towns such as Guri, 660 kilometers southeast of Caracas. Until mid-December, some 300,000 people lived in shanties on the hillsides surrounding Caracas. But after days of rain, a torrent of mud slid down the steep slopes of Avila, the mountain that separates Caracas from the coast. Some 30,000 who lived on the ribbon of land between the mountain and the ocean perished, either crushed under tons of mud and debris or swept out to sea with the churning mess. An additional 170,000 were luckier: They lost only their ramshackle homes and possessions. Some 100,000 survived with their homes intact.

BIG MOVE. Now, Venezuela's left-leaning, populist President Hugo Chavez wants no one rebuilding on the hillsides, tempting fate again. His plan is to move the homeless to the interior. There they will be trained to work in agrarian cooperatives or at such jobs as seamstress, carpenter, or metalworker in sundry enterprises that will be opened in new industrial parks. While plans are still vague, the government already has resettled refugees in six sites, including Guri, and there could be as many as 20 locations. The government has put no price tag on the project, but it is expected to cost billions of dollars.

The tragedy seems tailor-made for Chavez, a cashiered army officer who is wildly popular with the poor. For years, officials have wanted to spread out Venezuela's 25 million population. Now, Chavez may succeed where they haven't. After all, he has the best incentive of all: desperation.

Over the years, millions have left the countryside for Caracas, and now a third of Venezuela's people are crowded into the capital, widening already broad economic extremes. While the rich reside in walled mansions and go on weekend shopping sprees in Miami, the poor of the city are crammed into a miserable belt of shantytowns where crime, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse are rampant. But the vast plains of the interior are nearly empty. Guri, for instance, is located on the shores of a pine-tree-lined reservoir whose hydroelectric dam provides three-quarters of Venezuela's energy. The town had a population of just 2,000 people before the arrival of the 1,250 disaster victims. The apartments are refurbished housing; they were constructed a generation ago for construction workers and have been vacant since the dam was completed in 1986.

For Soto and other transplants, the journey started in early morning when soldiers aroused them at their makeshift shelter on a parking deck at a Caracas stadium. Buses took them to the airport where they squeezed into military transport planes and found places to sit on top of the bags and supplies piled on the floor. For many, this was their first plane ride, and as soon as the craft lifted off the ground, they clutched seats and straps and crossed themselves. Some complained of nausea, and the army officer in charge quickly ran out of plastic bags.

A few talked excitedly about their imagined new homes. Danuel Lechare, a 53-year-old widow who lost her home in the flood, says she volunteered to go to Guri although she had a job as a secretary at the Interior Relations Ministry in Caracas. "I can't afford to pay rent," she says. "My father-in-law used to help me out, but he went missing in the floods."

Her boss has promised to find her a job once she relocates. The promise of jobs, in fact, not housing with electricity and running water--luxuries most of these people have never had--is what lures the homeless families to Guri. With Venezuela's economy in a recession sparked by the 1998 oil price collapse, unemployment last year reached about 20%, up from 14% in 1998.

Those who volunteered for relocation--so far, many have not--believe Chavez will bring them jobs. The day after they arrive, they welcome him enthusiastically when he arrives for a visit. Dressed in army fatigues and the red beret that has become the symbol of Chavistas, as his supporters are called, the President tells the families assembled on a ball field that 50,000 surrounding hectares are earmarked for developing Guri into a city. "A lot more people are going to come," he promises. "There will be farms, tourism, and sport fishing on the lake, cattle-ranching, construction."

In the meantime, he says--motioning the crowd to hush its exuberant chants of "Cha-vez! Cha-vez!"--the refugees will be given food and each worker will be paid $185 per month for two months while they work in community jobs, such as sanitation or fixing up their rent-free apartments. After that, they will have to find permanent jobs.

The regional state company, Venezuelan Corp. of Guayana, a paternalistic conglomerate that runs everything from trash collection to aluminum plants in Puerto Ordaz, 45 minutes away, will offer as many as 265 jobs, paying $185 per month. Those who prove themselves model citizens--hard workers who take care of their homes and stay out of trouble--will be given ownership of their apartments.

"In another decade, Venezuela will have a different face," the President thunders. "There will be no shanties!" Cheers go up. "Of course there's going to be work," says Daniel Fernandez, a 38-year-old school janitor. "I trust Chavez. That man doesn't talk nonsense. I see him as an envoy of God sent to help us poor people."

Chavez' critics, however, see nothing divine at work. They contend that the relocations will do little for the poor, most of them urban slum dwellers used to working at low-skill service jobs. "What are these people going to do over there? Are they trained in farming? Do they want to be there?" asks Ricardo Penfold, an economic analyst with Santander investment in Caracas. "I just don't know how feasible it is."

TIDY. Moreover, the established residents, who live on Guri's tidy streets of single-family homes, aren't thrilled at the prospect of having the former slum dwellers as neighbors. "This is a place where we don't lock our cars at night, where our kids walk home from school dances at 2 in the morning," says an army officer's wife. "That's all going to change."

So far, the government has turned a deaf ear to their fears and has failed to beef up security or even discuss the possible problems with worried residents. Yet those small-town amenities probably appeal to many of the new residents, who also want to be able to walk safe streets at night, see woods and lawns, and have baseball and soccer fields for their kids. Late in the day, the Soto kids romp on the grass in front of their new apartment while Soto, an electrician, tells how he has offered to help fix the electrical system in the long-vacant apartments. "There's a future here," he says. Soto desperately wants to be a part of it.

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