Monday, December 12, 2005

Treading on dangerous ground 

Caracas, Venezuela's largest and fastest growing metropolitan area, is very short on space. As it is people live stacked on top of each other. Futher, the metro system is at its breaking point, the streets are clogged, and there is essentially no horizontal space left so people are building on near vertical spaces, ie the steep walls on the sides of valleys.

All of this serves to make Caracas a very ugly and almost unlivable city. Yet more people keep pouring into it from other parts of the country due to it being the economic center of the country and where most of the well paying jobs are to be found.

Given that there is virtually no unused space around Caracas it was inevitable that eventually would turn their eyes to the huge park to the north of the city on a mountain known as El Avila. This mountain is known as the "lungs" of Caracas and also serves as a very welcome respite to unrelenting ugliness of the concrete and glass jungle that is Caracas. But according to news reports the government is even considering allowing part of El Avila be used to build housing.

The Avila mountain range seen from a Caracas street

While the government claims its current ideas are just land swaps and wouldn't result in any overall reduction in the size of the park we would do well to meet and such claims with skepticism. Oppenents of the plan fear starting building in the park would be the preverbial camel nose under the tent and would result in the park soon being overrun with squatters and makeshift housing. Further, it is rightly pointed out that it is simply not a good idea to build on the steep mountain ridge as it is prone to landslides after heavy rains. It was such landslides that led to the deaths of thousands in 1999 in Vargas which is just the north face of El Avila.

Truthfully, I think the only real solution to Caracas's problems is to try to shift economic development out to other regions of the country. If the jobs move people will follow. Chavez used to speak about this quite a bit but little of late. But the idea of shifting development isn't something that should just be forgotten about - it really is a compelling necissity.

Further, it wouldn't be all that hard to do. The government sector could do most of it on its own. For example, the state oil company, PDVSA, has its headquarters in Caracas. Yet there is no oil produced around Caracas. Maybe it would make more sense to move it and thousands of jobs with it to Maracaibo which is much more closely tied to the oil fields. Other government offices can and should be moved away too. It really is amazing how centralized the federal government is in Caracas. For example, if you purchase are car in Barquisimeto you can't register it and get a title to it there. You have to travel 4 and a 1/2 hours to Caracas to do that as that is where the motor vehicle office is. This serves to concentrate jobs in Caracas and make what should be simple tasks very difficult for the 80% of the population that lives in areas other than Carcas.

The bottom line is Chavez's original plans of trying to get people and jobs to move out of the Carcas area needs need to be revived. Otherwise Caracas will join the likes of Mexico City and Cairo as super cities with super slums that are simply unlivable and inhuman.


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