Sunday, May 20, 2007

Venezuela: Not from the outside looking in; but from the inside looking out. 

The subject of scarcity has come up a lot recently in the context of Venezuela. Such is the level of scarcity that even books about Venezuela seem to sell out very quickly and are very hard to find. For example, even though I live in one of the publishing capitals of the world it took me weeks to finally get a copy of the book “Cowboy In Caracas – A North American’s Memoir of Venezuela’s Democratic Revolution” by Charles Hardy.

Having just finished reading it I’m probably supposed to write a book review. Thing is I’m not good at writing book reviews and any I wrote in this case would not do justice to the book. Suffice it to say, I found it to be an EXCELLENT book. Not only would I highly recommend it I would go so far as to insist anyone wanting to gain familiarity with current events in Venezuela needs to read this book.

This book is not written by a foreign academic who only knows the lives of average Venezuelans through statistics and the abstract concepts of social class. Nor is it like the writings of the Venezuelan elite who have never been near a barrio and whose interaction with average Venezuelans is probably limited to giving orders to their servants. What is unique, and so valuable, about this book is it is written not ABOUT the Venezuelan poor and working class, but it is written FROM THEIR PERSPECTIVE and FROM THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS by a former Maryknoll missionary who lived with the Venezuelan poor for many years.

Just the first couple of pages give a sense of the unique perspective this book will give. And interestingly enough it also touches on a topic often discussed on this blog - the quality of housing built by this government or the quality of the government housing built by previous governments which Mr. Hardy got to experience first hand:

I first visited the barrio Nueva Tacagua in January 1985. It was a government project, constructed on the periphery of Caracas during the first term of President Carlos Andres Perez (1974 – 1979). The barrio was made up of various types of dwellings. There were pressed-cardboard-and-tin shacks in the form of barracks. A panel of cardboard was the only wall separating one home from another. There were apartment buildings, ranging from four to ten stories in height, none with elevators. Some people lived in “trailers” which were similar to metal ship containers and more like ovens when the heat bore down on them. There were also small cinder-block houses.

The barrio was constructed on unstable ground, causing continual landslides that regularly fractured the walls of the more permanent dwellings.

The barracks and trailers were considered “temporary”. In reality, all the structures were temporary because of the instability of the land. I often joked about this word “temporary”, saying that I had problems understanding Spanish. The structures had been there for over 10 years. What did “temporary” mean in Spanish?

After several months of language school in Bolivia and orientation in Venezuela, I was assigned to Nueva Tacagua and offered the possibility of living in one of the cardboard barracks, House Number 51 on Terrace B of Sector C. One day in August of that year, I took a public Yip there.

Suitcase in hand, I started to walk toward my future home. Luis, an eight-year-old boy, asked if he could help. I wasn’t exactly sure where Number 51 was located, although I had been there before. When we arrived, Luis stopped me from putting my suitcase on the ground, cautioning, “Caca!” That’s a word Venezuelans use to say “no” to their children. It also means “excrement”. Luis was using both meanings of the word.

I had just stepped into a mountain of fecal matter. I don’t think there was a square inch of Terrace B that had not been tainted by human waste or animal excrement at some time. The problem was threefold: lack of running water, lack of toilets, and lack of enclosed sewers. In front of my door, a stream of black water carried the sewage from my neighbors’ dwellings to the miniature black river behind my house. Soon I would cease to notice the stench. That day I did.

It would be best to stop and reflect on this situation before going further. Understanding that water and fecal material are essential to understanding Nueva Tacagua.

When Nueva Tacagua was first constructed, there were common toilets that were rendered useless by the lack of water. Because the toilets were of little value and totally unsanitary, the people tore them down and filled the vacant spaces with more shacks.

What does one do to take care of basic necessities when there are no toilets and no open fields? Urinating was no problem. Each home had a corner from which the urine ran below the cardboard wall and into a canal. But to defecate? It was senseless to use something like a potty since there was always a scarcity of water with which to clean it afterwards.

What the inhabitants did was use the newspaper. We would squat over the paper, defecate, wrap it up, and throw the contents down the hillside on which the terrace was located, or up the hillside behind my house.

In the morning, when neighbors walked out of their homes with the paper in their hands, no one spoke to each other. It was just a moment of ignominy. No word was adequate for what we felt, and even a “good morning” would have hurt.

The missionaries who lived in Number 51 before me had installed a toilet, the only I knew of on the entire terrace. It had no tank. It was simply something to use when there was water. The contents ran a few yards through a shallow underground pipe to the common ditch where it joined the urine of others. But often I did not have enough water to use it.

Water arrived on Terrace B in tank trucks with the words “DRINKING WATER” painted on their sides. They were old and dirty and the hoses that carried the water to our barrels were equally disgusting. We had to pay for each barrel of water. The price was much, much higher than what the wealthy in other parts of town paid for the same quantity, which they received through their faucets.

I originally had two barrels in Number 51 and later bought a third one. We never knew when the trucks would return. Sometimes more than a month passed without water. When it came, clothes were washed, baths were enjoyed, and the mood of the people was different. When it didn’t come, children didn’t attend school for lack of clean clothes, people tended to stay close to home, and one could feel the tension.

The Venezuelan is an extremely clean person. Body odor is not tolerated. The Venezuelan frequently jokes about the offensive smells of foreigners. I remember a cartoon showing some indigenous people watching the first Europeans stepping onto the shore of their "new world". One says to another: "Do you think they couldn't find any water in the ocean to take a bath with?"

Not having sufficient water and not knowing when it might come again was like torture. One day when a mother had beaten her child, I commented to a neighbor youth that everyone seemed so tense. He replied, “Charlie, have you forgotten that we haven’t had water for over a month?”

I don’t know about you but I would much rather live in this housing constructed by the Chavez government than in the sub-human junk built by previous governments. From that passage you can clearly see the absolute contempt that the Venezuelan ruling class had for its people. Yet that is only up to page 2 – the remaining 168 pages give ever more examples of the human degradation that Venezuelans were subjected to in their daily lives and to the vicious machinations used by the Venezuelan elite to make sure they stayed in their place.

A recurring theme of opposition propaganda was that everything in Venezuela was fine until Chavez came along – “Yes, there was too much corruption” they’ll say “but we all got along and everyone was happy. It is Chavez who has created so much division and hatred”. This book gives lie to that and no one who reads it will ever believe that non-sense for even one second.

Given that I will be ordering several more copies to give to people who I know that would benefit from reading this book I suggest that you get your own copy as soon as possible – like prime cuts it is flying off the shelves fast.


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