The Book: Por Ahora…
The boy has the gravely deep voice of a long time smoker. He talks into the space between us, his eyes not completely focusing. The spoon he uses to eat soup is kept in hand as he speaks.
“Yes, I thank our good president Hugo Chavez for this food. I was living on the streets and I live here now. It is much better here. I had a lot of trouble before with thieves and someone always wanted to bother me. My life is very different now.”
In the backyard of this two storied concrete building in the Caracas barrio Veinte-Tres de Enero two older boys are refurbishing a swimming pool that has not been used for years. They paint the sides and use a machine to smooth the bottom.
This is a center for young men who are trying to escape gang life in Viente-Tres, one of the dozens of organizations that have been founded across Venezuela with money from the Chavez government.
The young men live at the center and are given food and counseling by former gang members who have escaped the streets themselves. They are encouraged not to leave unless they have somewhere specific to go.
Outside they may be attacked for leaving their gang.
Luckily, the young men are happy where they are. They have seen what has happened to many of their friends. Lives of crime and violence in these barrios nearly always lead to an early death. The center has allowed them to avoid that fate.
“We are trying to do good here,” one of the councilors says. “Chavez has made it possible for us to do this.”
Veinte-Tres de Enero is the largest parroquia, an entity composed of neighboring barrios, in Caracas.
Named for the twenty-third of January, the day democracy was founded in Venezuela, it is also a highly organized, nearly autonomous area of about 800,000 people that begins not far from the Miraflores presidential palace.
Graffiti covers the sides of walls. The faces of Che Guevara, Jose Marti, Fidel Castro, and Simon Bolivar. Most of the slogans are anti-American. “Yankee Go Home” is one of the most frequent graffitis. Second to that is “Rumbo Al Socialismo.”
Party onto socialism.
Chavez’s most hardcore supporters come from barrios such as those that compose Viente-Tres, places dictators and presidents have long tried to control. The history of state repression towards Veinte-Tres has only united it against outside forces. Today police know that they will be attacked if they wander too far inside the barrios.
Veinte-Tres governs itself.
Effectively its own city at the edge of Caracas, it is organized, militant and supposedly extremely dangerous. The various community organizations post lookouts and when an outsider appears they are intercepted and made to explain their intentions.
Alexis spots me sweeping leaves in front of the offices of a Veinte-Tres de Enero community organization.
He is in his mid-thirties, bald, and wearing a red hat and T-shirt. We drink Ice beer on a concrete bench and discover that we have been at many of the same political rallies, though, as Alexis says, “in different capacities.”
Alexis is involved in one of the Veinte-Tres de Enero community organizations and is tasked with doing outreach to Veinte-Tres de Enero residents. I ask him how the residents, who value their independence, feel about Chavez.
“How long have you been in Venezuela?” he asks.
“Four months,” I say.
“So you have seen a little of our revolution.”
Alexis tells me that though the people support him “to the death” Veinte-Tres was organized to defend itself years before Chavez came to power.
“We have always been socialist,” he says.
For them Chavez is a chance for what they always dreamed of. The resources he gives further empowers the parroquia. Almost all the various community organizations are receiving money from the government.
Along with this, Alexis says, the people in Veinte-Tres are themselves coming closer together. He admits that there is tension between some Veinte-Tres organizations over the amount of money that is given, but for the most part he sees a greater sense of camaraderie throughout the barrios.
“You and I met because of Chavez and his revolution,” Alexis says.
Ranchos, red brick houses with corrugated tin roofs, compose the main dwellings in Veinte-Tres.
During a construction boom in the 1950s people from the countryside were encouraged to move to Caracas and work as laborers. They were given the hills to live on. Taking what they could find…pieces of wood, metal, brick…they assembled their homes. As more people moved in, the ranchos climbed further and further up the hills…until finally they reached the top…then they continued down the other side…down towards the Caribbean.
I had been told, mostly by members of the Venezuelan opposition, that people who live in the barrios are very poor and uneducated. That they live packed together, multiple families sharing single houses and apartments.
This assumption is strengthened by the jumbled, overlapping visual of the barrios themselves.
But it is not always correct.
Returning several times a week to Veinte-Tres and other Caracas barrios I see that most children do go to school. While some families share houses, most have their own space. Though the barrios are crowded, the decomposing exteriors of the ranchos often do not match what is inside.
People find a way to make their environment as comfortable and neat as possible.
Alongside the ranchos are several massive ‘superblock’ apartment buildings. Forty meters tall and over eighty meters long, these cheap rectangular buildings were originally built in the 1950s by the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez who thought they were the answer to Caracas’ housing problems.
These ‘superblocks’ stand as an example of another Venezuela leader claiming to use the country’s oil wealth for the common good. However, two- thirds of the completed apartments were still empty when Jimenez was overthrown in a popular military coup in 1958. In the mass act of rebellion that has defined Veinte-Tres ever since, people rushed down from the hills to claim apartments for themselves.
Alexis lives in one of these ‘superblock’ apartments. We share an elevator with a woman and two children who are carrying a large sack of beans. The ‘superblocks’ are tall. People buy in bulk so they do not have to continuously carry up food. The inside of the elevator is decrepit. There is a half drunk bottle of Ice beer in the corner. In answer to my question, Alexis says that residents getting stuck in the elevator is “very rare.”
Inside his apartment, Carolina, his fourteen year old daughter, comes into the living room on crutches. Her right leg is broken from playing soccer. Such an injury might normally be devastating to a girl from a poor family, but Carolina was immediately taken to the local Barrio Adentro, the free health clinics that have been established in communities across Venezuela. From there she was transfered to a hospital and had her leg set at no cost.
“Everything was paid for,” Alexis says. “We could not have afforded to pay for it ourselves.”
Alexis’ apartment is simple. A few sacks of rice, a few boxes, a table, and some chairs. After he introduced me to Carolina and his wife, Alexis says, “I think it is a better idea to go to my friend’s apartment.”
A few floors up, Alexis’ friend Pedro has an apartment full of wooden furniture. There is also a TV and HP desktop with a slow Internet connection.
Pedro is a leader of a Veinte-Tres community organization. He leans back in his chair and clicks through digital photos he took when Chavez drove through Veinte-Tres standing in the back of a pickup truck wearing a long cape.
“Would you like whiskey?” he says.
He pours three whiskies and we go to the window and watch the fading the light. Ranchos cascade down the side of the hill. Clothes lines are stretched between them. The homes look like blocks that have been set together at odd angles and are about to fall from their position clinging to the sides of the hills and tumble down towards the city.
After two whiskies each, Alexis and Pedro bring me to see children from Veinte-Tres perform Jesus Christ Super Star alongside children from a middle class suburb called El Hatillo.
“This an example of how our socialism is the greatest,” Alexis says. “People form the suburbs are acting in a play with people from a barrio.”
“If Veinte-Tres has always been so independent are people cautious of what Chavez offers?” I ask.
Alexis hadn’t really answered this question before.
“Chavez is great. He is the best president in Venezuelan history because he at least gives something to the people,” Alexis says. “He is with the pueblo for now and we will see if he continues to be with it. But if he starts to forget the pueblo we can rise up and overthrow him.”