Some of the poorest people in metropolitan Caracas live in the richest parts of the city. And a few of them live on the land of the richest man in South America.
I ran into Nikari, a sociology student at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, while visiting Antímano, one of the many large “barrios” which house the millions of poor people living on the steep hillsides that surround the central city. She and three other students were working with more than 60 neighborhood health committees and helping them correlate their medical statistics on computers.
In one neighborhood we were served a very tasty meal at the “community kitchen,” a government-funded effort that enabled five women to serve free meals to over 100 of their most impoverished neighbors. Antímano, just like the four other Caracas barrios I have visited, is exceptionally well-organized. Its citizens take advantage of all the new government-supported programs – Barrio Adentro medical care, community food distribution, and the various education missions, to name a few.
“It’s true, people here are poor,” said Nikari, “but on Sunday I can show you some places that are much poorer. In Baruta and El Hatillo. You feel like you’re walking back into time. You take these paths through the jungle, one to Los Mangos, another to a more wretched place, La Libertad, that’s more than a half an hour’s walk.”
On one corner of the city, to the south east, the hillsides are not densely packed with slums. The bus ride out of the city takes you past beautiful terraces, with trees and gardens scattered around spacious homes and luxurious apartment complexes. As the road ascends to the mountain ridge, the land gets even richer, and the upper-middle class housing gives way to walled estates for the truly wealthy. I looked at the other bus passengers, who looked far too poor to inhabit this region, unless they were maids or gardeners, and I asked, “When do we get to Baruta?”
Nikari laughed, “This is Baruta, it’s the richest part of the Caracas. Just be patient.” As we kept winding along the top of a high ridge, she pointed down a side road. “Look, there’s La Mata. That’s where the National Guard arrested the Colombian paramilitaries a few months ago. A right-wing, Cuban-Venezuelan guy named Alonzo sneaked them onto his big estate, the Hacienda Daktari. People say they were here to try to instigate another coup d’etat against Chavez. It’s easy to hide up here.”
Very easy. On either side of us, steamy clouds from the morning rain were rising from the thick rain forest that plunges into the deep valleys. Now there were no more estates, just a few poor huts scattered among the trees along the road.
When the bus finally stopped, the rain resumed, so Nikari decided we should forego the forty minute walk to La Libertad -- “too treacherous,” she said. Instead we took a muddy path that looked treacherous enough, winding down a 45 degree slope and disappearing into the forest. I landed on my backside twice.
Nikari, talking with Leo
Soon, we could see the roof of the first house in Los Mangos, and someone was shouting “Ciao, Nikari” and bounding down the path. It was Leo, a nineteen-year-old guy in a pony-tail who wore a t-shirt, running shorts, and torn-up tennis shoes. He was just returning from his morning training run, limbering up for a soccer match in the afternoon.
As we continued down the path, Leo pointed through the trees to the other side of the ravine and said, “That’s our house. Do you see my horse?” You couldn’t miss the horse, who was very fat and standing under a tin roof beside a little girl.
Their house, a one-room shack with a roof over the entry area, was home to Leo, his mother, his older brother, and three little sisters. The earth, inside and out, was swept very clean. The brother, in an immaculate white shirt, was heading up the hill to catch a bus going back toward the city, where he had a class at one of the education missions. After we exchanged greetings with Leo’s mother and sisters, who were hanging out the wash, we kept descending through a community of dozens of homes, all more or less like Leo’s.
Suddenly there was a roar overhead and I jumped back to see a big black helicopter flying in low over the tree tops. “Wow!” I exclaimed, “Is that the army or the national guard? Are they still looking for Colombian paramilitary guys who escaped from La Mata?”
Leo laughed, “No, that’s not the army, that’s Cisnero’s helicopter. It flies over all the time.” He pointed over a hill. “His hacienda is over that way.”
“Si, Gustavo Cisneros.”
Gustavo Cisneros is the richest man in Venezuela, perhaps in all of South America. His holdings, once estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth over $6 billion, include the Venevision TV network, the nation’s largest, and a controlling ownership share in Univision, the biggest Spanish-language network in the United States.
Leo later informed us that Los Mangos is part of his giant hacienda, which spreads out over thousands of acres. “Cisneros wants to pay us to leave our ranchos, so he can tear them down and start up commercial coffee production again. But none of us want to sell because our families have been here so long. We hope that someday we can get legal title to all of Los Mangos, plus some more land down below that is more suitable for growing beans and other kinds of agriculture. Right now another hacienda owner has given us permission to plant on his land.”
Los Mangos consists of about 35 one-room “ranchos” scattered around a steep hillside that was once part of a coffee plantation in the 19th century. Gustavo Cisneros purchased the abandoned plantation along with thousands of acres of adjoining forest several years ago. But the thirty-some families who live in Los Mangos and their predecessors have been there much longer, many for several decades, and they have certain rights. It is illegal to evict them from their mud and tin huts.
Los Mangos from a hill-top
Los Mangos ought to be a paradise, for mangos, papaya, banana, and coffee trees are growing everywhere. Edible creatures, such as chickens and turkeys and ducks, are scurrying around some of the shacks.
On the other hand, Nikari and her fellow students have collected data that shows the distressing depth of poverty here, especially when compared to the high standard of living enjoyed by other residents of Baruta and Hatillo. Only one quarter of the families have running water, and there is no provision at all for sewage. Many people are unemployed and malnourished, and most who are employed have to travel for a couple of hours each way to their low-paying jobs in downtown Caracas. Children can attend an elementary school at the top of the hill, but the overall education level in Los Mangos is very low.
Some highly energetic residents, like Leo and his brother, are traveling to other parts of Caracas to take advantage of the new Bolivarian schools that support continuing education. Leo, who loves animals, is training to be a veterinary assistant. He also works in a riding stable, where the owners gave him an old horse that they no longer wanted to keep.
Other young people in Los Mangos get despondent about their prospects. On the day I visited, Nikari spent a couple of hours consoling one of the women who lives at the very bottom of the hill. Her 22 year-old son had committed suicide the week before, with a shotgun.
Leo and hisyoungest sister and horse
Later, the same night,
Nikari and a fellow sociology student, Carlos, met me for a few drinks. Apparently they thought a little sociological contrast was necessary. They took me to the multi-story mall of San Ignacio in a wealthy section of Caracas -- the people, the glitzy shops and bars, and the gleaming gold escalators all shouted out “Conspicuous Consumption!” as loudly as any rich neighborhood in Miami or Los Angeles.
They told me that some students at the Central University of Venezuela were strong Chavistas, like Nikari, whose mother works as a secretary in Caracas. Others, not necessarily just the rich ones, supported the opposition. And many, including Carlos, who is the step-son of a professor who supports Chavez, consider themselves “ni ni” (“neither …nor” – neither for nor against the government).
In Carlos’ case, he totally supported all the social missions, health care and food distribution programs, but didn’t approve of Chavez’s rhetoric or his harsh treatment of the oil company employees, mostly white collar, because they took part in shutting down the industry in 2002-2003. One of his neighbors was one of 19,000 people who were fired, Carlos said, and the family had been in rough economic circumstances ever since.
“The government says they were trying to wreck the national economy,” I pointed out, “and they nearly succeeded.”
“True, but people like my neighbor were only doing what the chief executives and the big media were telling them to do,” replied Carlos. “I think they should have rehired a lot more of the people who were fired.”
And what about Cisneros and Los Mangos?
Gustavo Cisneros and his TV network, Venevision, were major supporters of the oil industry shutdown, as well as the attempted coup in 2002. Cisneros, who has been a friend of the Bush family for years, seems to have adopted a quieter, semi-conciliatory position now that Chavez and his supporters have won so many elections overwhelmingly. His TV network, which still supports the political opposition, now refrains from the vehement attacks and unsubstantiated rumors that are peddled, in a style that makes Rush Limbaugh look innocuous, by many other private media such as RCTV.
Will Gustavo Cisneros ever be willing to give up a tiny portion of his vast property so that the little settlement of Los Mangos can prosper? Will the citizens of Los Mangos get organized so that they can fight for their rights? Will somebody in the national government give a little push, so that the Law of the Land (La Ley de Tierra) can be implemented? La Ley de Tierra, which took effect in 2001, allows the government to purchase unused land from very large landowners at market prices, then turn it over to small farmers and cooperatives.
Such things are happening all over Venezuela, where millions of acres of public and private land have been redistributed to hundreds of thousands of poor families. But not in the Baruta and Hatillo districts of metropolitan Caracas – they are still controlled by the wealthy opposition, including the ultra-rightwing mayor of Baruta, Henrique Capriles Radonski, who has no interest in implementing the Bolivarian programs.
Less than a week after visiting Los Mangos in 2004, I attended “El Encuentro de Artistas y Intelectuales en Defensa de Humanidad,” (Conference of Artists and Intellectuals in Defense of Humanity) in Caracas. Of all the commendable things that Hugo Chavez said to us at this international conference, one sentence seemed to sum up the aspirations of the Bolivarian Revolution in a way that speaks directly to the people of Los Mangos.
“Yes, it is important to end poverty, to end misery,” said the President, “but the most important thing is to offer power to the poor so that they can fight for themselves.”