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Caracas Stories: In a raddled, refuse-strewn city, even the potholes have names

By Phil Gunson | The Independent

26.04.05 | Posted 24 April 2005 | By night, viewed from a classy restaurant in the better part of town, and under the influence of a full-bodied, Argentine vino tinto, the Venezuelan capital can easily be mistaken for a sophisticated, modern metropolis.

But like an elderly beauty queen, sans make-up at seven in the morning, she's not such a pleasant prospect viewed in the cruel light of day. Especially for those condemned to live and work in and around the centre of Caracas or in its western slums.

It isn't just the piles of refuse, spread wider by stray dogs and the homeless in search of food, nor the pavements crammed with illegal stalls selling pirated goods. Nor even the cavernous holes in the road that can cost you a wheel or your suspension - although that's part of it.

Not long ago, a popular tabloid ran a competition in which readers were invited to nominate their "favourite" hole. The holes were given names, and the best and biggest won prizes for their sponsors. The city, it sometimes seems, is falling apart.

Until a few years ago, a friend reminisced recently, there was scarcely a capital in Latin America - outside elegant Buenos Aires - that could compete with Caracas. Now even Costa Rica's tiny San José is a worthy rival.

The futuristic twin towers of Parque Central, once the tallest skyscrapers south of the United States, still rise high above the valley floor. But the top 20 floors of the east tower are charred and blackened - burned out in a still-unexplained fire last October.

Public monuments are a disgrace: destroyed by leftist demonstrators (the Columbus statue), awaiting repair after decades of no maintenance, or dismantled by thieves for their scrap value - as was the late Jesús Soto's remarkable kinetic sphere, now reduced to a sad collection of hanging wires.

Not surprisingly, many caraqueños experience a frequent and intense desire to be somewhere else. But not to worry. You can travel to a different country for free simply by changing your viewing and listening habits.

I decided recently to see what life is like for those fervent supporters of Hugo Chávez's revolutionary government, whose version of reality is exclusively provided by state radio and TV.

There are disadvantages to eschewing the opposition media, despite their sometimes hysterical coverage. State broadcasters habitually omit inconvenient news items, or reduce them to a brief, enigmatic mention. And there are hours - I mean hours - of meandering, repetitious, dogma-laden speeches by the great leader.

But in return for voluntarily remaining ill-informed, you often get a wonderful sense of being wrapped in cotton wool and transported to a magic land, where diligent revolutionaries strive day and night to make life better for the masses. Occasionally, however, the cotton wool is pierced by a brief shaft of light, accompanied by a rush of cold air.

The other day I caught a few minutes of a radio programme in which listeners were advised that Venezuela was already immersed in a "fourth-generation war" in which the weapons were the media.

"The way to asphyxiate the [opposition] media," the presenter informed them enthusiastically, "is to stop buying the products they advertise." She did not say where freedom of expression, pluralism or democracy fitted into this Orwellian landscape.

No doubt the Information Minister could explain. Not to me, though, having concluded (and publicly announced) that I am a leading participant in a campaign against the government, paid for by the US State Department.

Not long after this revelation, the head of the Land Reform Institute gave an interview in which he advocated fomenting hatred against gringos, in preparation for a forthcoming US invasion, adding for good measure that the American government was a puppet of British imperialism.

I conclude that I am probably slated for asphyxiation. Unless, of course, I fall down a hole in the road first.

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