Five Years of Progressive Venezuelan Social Decay
By Gustavo Coronel, November 25, 2003
We could make total abstraction of names, ideologies, political strategies, attitudes, vulgarity and all other ingredients which make the current government of Venezuela deeply distasteful to a majority of citizens, but we would still be left with a country which has suffered a tragic social and economic collapse. I guess that, at the end of the day, this is the main thing that counts. Whereas all the ingredients mentioned above might belong to the realm of perception, the decay of the country is very much there for all to see. This decay is not a figment of our imagination but something that can be seen, photographed, smelled and heard. I recently sold my small Caracas apartment, conveniently located near the Sabana Grande shopping District, near the headquarters of PDVSA, near the Metro and near some excellent restaurants. I paid some $40,000 for it about 7 years ago and I sold it for some $27,000. Why did I make such an illogical transaction? Because all the things listed above as positive are no longer so. The Sabana Grande shopping area, which was easily compared to the great boulevards of Buenos Aires, Rio or even Rome, is now a huge slum area, taken over by buhoneros, beggars, drug addicts, abandoned children and, worse, by organized criminal gangs which prey on passer bys. Filth piles high along the sidewalks, the smells rival those of a Zoo and the general atmosphere of the area is one of tragic social breakdown. Walking in this area is both difficult and dangerous. The PDVSA headquarters, which used to be impeccably clean, is now surrounded by shacks (tarantines) selling posters of Che Guevara. On Saturdays the block is closed off to traffic and used as an open popular market. Most walls in the neighborhood are covered with graffiti carrying the message "now PDVSA belongs to the people." Small groups of chronic drunkards hang around the place, calling out nasty names to those pedestrians who look reasonably clean and well dressed. The whole area has become a combat zone, similar to the worst spots of Boston or New York. The good restaurants in the area are starting to move away to healthier neighborhoods. What is going on, therefore, is a progressive conversion of middle class into marginal urban areas. This is the opposite of what one should expect if government performance was acceptable. The Venezuela of only ten years ago had many problems but misery was not one of them. People did not walk around half naked in the streets without being challenged. Today, almost anything goes in the way of social neglect. At road intersections, where traffic lights are increasingly out of order, motorists are regularly asked for money, offered instant windshield cleanings or are shown a brief juggling act by youngsters who hope for a few coins in return.
To my mind this state of things clearly mean that the main objective of government is not being achieved. On the contrary, it is being defeated. The victims of this involution are those citizens of Venezuela who have always wanted to live in clean and civilized communities but now find themselves stepping on garbage or human refuse. It could be argued that some citizens are better off today, those citizens who are now invading areas not part of their original habitat. For such citizens, being able to impose their habits on the invaded communities might appear to be a victory of sorts. Equality is in their minds as they now walk around freely in areas where they did not go before. But that is far from being the equality we were hoping for. We were hoping for the upgrading of slums to the level of communities, certainly not for the conversion of communities into slums. This is what has been happening to us during the last five years. This is why I say that names are not so important as deeds. I want this progressive destruction of Venezuelan society to stop. This desire goes much deeper than the personal distaste I feel for the members of the current government. I know there is no guarantee that anyone coming after these people will be able to do a better job but a change has to be made. This change should come about in peace if we are true to our democratic nature.
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