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Rain and the Revolution
Like most caracas barrios, catia is a perilous place during heavy rains, which can wash away the homes clinging to the slopes that ring the capital. I spent my first day in Catia not teaching but helping residents shove boulders under their houses to keep them from sliding down hillsides during a November downpour.
No one disagrees with the Chávez government's efforts to build new housing for the victims of those disasters, nor with the need for land reform in Venezuela. But officials as if to score populist points, if not confirm their dogmatic disdain for the private sector are telling many Catia business owners that their properties, despite an abundance of vacant tracts in or near the barrio, are being confiscated to make way for refugee apartments. "None of this makes any sense," says Augusto Sciacca, whose ceramic-tile company employs 16 people in Catia and who is facing eviction. "They're not just pulling the rug out from under our feet but from under Catia's economy too."
Fernando Fernández has a piñata shop nearby. He's bracing for his own summons, especially since Venezuela's inflation rate almost 28% last year, the world's highest and tight currency controls have made the price of his once best-selling candy-stuffed piñata about $70 today. "The Chavistas come around in their red T-shirts," says Ferná ndez, 56, "and they tell me I exploit my neighbors."
The office of Jorge Rodríguez, Chávez's campaign manager and mayor of the Caracas borough that includes Catia, did not respond to my questions about the property seizures. Chávez's Housing Minister, Ricardo Molina, has said only that owners will be compensated, but those I interviewed say they've yet to be told when or by how much. Meanwhile, many Catia residents question whether Chávez's administration whose promise to build 200,000 new homes this year faces scepticism will ever complete the housing projects. That's because after 13 years, there's less to show for the estimated $300 billion the misiones have spent in Venezuelan barrios like Catia than you'd expect especially when it comes to preventing flood catastrophes.
In one vulnerable section of Catia, homeowners like Beatriz Castro, who shares a modest house with 15 family members, have been waiting a decade for dikes and drainage gutters. Castro points to the 1.5-m-high water line that stains her sitting-room wall, the result of the latest deluge. "The Chavistas protect us from imperialism but not the rains," she says, referring sardonically to the barrio militias Chávez formed to fend off what he calls an imminent U.S. invasion. Her neighbor Alfredo López says his complaints led officials to question his socialist loyalties, so he put a Capriles poster on his house. "I supported Chávez's politics of inclusion," says López, "until I figured out inclusion wasn't what it seemed."
López's exasperation demonstrates why ideological regimes like Chávez's, whether left wing or right wing (see the George W. Bush Administration in the U.S., Chávez's great Satan), so often lose their way: revolution becomes more important than results, power more important than people. Refinery calamities are hardly unique to Venezuela, but the August explosion, the worst in Venezuelan history, reignited criticism of Chávez's mismanagement of the state-run oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). He has long faced charges that he uses PDVSA, with revenue of $128 billion last year, less as an economic-development engine and more as a political-patronage trough where socialist ideology matters more than skills. Amid the politicization, production has dropped from 3.2 million barrels per day a decade ago to about 2.4 million barrels today.