By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
CAMINO DE LOS INDIOS, Venezuela -- Like most ambitious state projects in oil-rich Venezuela, the new city being built in the thickly wooded mountains here began as a whim of President Hugo Chávez's.
Flying in his helicopter north of Caracas over forests filled with monkeys and tropical birds, the president suddenly had a eureka moment -- he would carve a self-sustaining, self-contained city from the wilderness. Chávez envisioned this as the first of several utopian cities, a bold plan reflecting both Venezuela's capacity for undertaking ambitious projects and the president's growing propensity for making all major decisions.
"He told me, 'I want to see if it's possible,' " recalled Ramón Carrizales, minister of housing. "So we began to explore it, and we found vast tracts that could be utilized."
Carrizales, a retired army colonel like the president, added, "I think that with the president's intuition -- the president is a man of great intuition -- he perceived that you could develop something there, so we started in November of 2006."
Venezuelans are bracing for more grandiose plans, especially if Chávez's powers expand under proposed constitutional changes that voters are being asked to approve on Sunday.
The president's allies control Congress, the Central Bank and every other major institution. And with the price of oil approaching $100 a barrel, Chávez has the economic muscle along with the political might to carry out his biggest dreams.
"Everyone here knows that no one advises Chávez," said Luis Miquilena, a former interior minister and mentor to Chávez who has since broken with him. "Chávez is the one who decides everything."
Now finishing his ninth year in office, Chávez has hatched ideas ranging from moving clocks back half an hour to building artificial islands in the Caribbean. To the Bush administration's consternation, he is also forging political ties with Iran, an alliance that economists say has few practical economic considerations. But the partnership serves as a rebuke to Chávez's main adversary, the United States, which gave tacit support to a failed 2002 coup against the Venezuelan leader.
Chávez is also accelerating state spending on myriad social programs while proposing measures that critics say are designed to solidify his support among the large masses of poor who form his base. Maintaining such support is essential as Chávez campaigns for a "yes" vote on constitutional changes that would permit indefinite reelection, allow him to appoint allies to head newly created federal territories and increase the president's influence over the government's vast oil-generated wealth.
"What he wants to do is build a small model of what a future Venezuela could possibly look like," said Demetrio Boersner, a former diplomat and left-leaning historian who is critical of Chávez. "He wants undoubtedly to strengthen his influence on the poor people living in the poor quarters of town. He wants to reinforce the belief that many low-income Venezuelans have that he's on their side, that he's on the side of the underdog, on the side of the poor."
The plans for what officials call the "socialist cities" envisioned by Chávez are grand, evoking new cities built in such divergent countries as Brazil and the old Soviet Union. Chávez is relying on Cuban engineering companies and technical advice from Belarus, a former Soviet republic that Carrizales, the housing minister, said has "much experience in agro-industrial cities."
Carrizales said that the city here in the mountainous area of Camino de los Indios, to be called Caribia -- another suggestion by the president -- will be the first of several small cities and urbanization projects across the country. Government planners are considering developments in places as far afield as the oil-producing Orinoco Belt in the north, Ciudad Guayana in the east, itself a planned city from the 1960s, and the plains state of Barinas, where Chávez was raised.
In Caribia, the idea is to build scores of four-story apartment blocks that will eventually house 100,000 people. During a reporter's recent visit here, excavators and earthmovers roared, and construction workers finished the foundations of the first apartment blocks, which are scheduled for completion in the coming weeks. There will also be parks and sports complexes, Carrizales said, as well as schools, hospitals, state-run factories and small fields for crops.
"We're looking to have a city with a different vision," Carrizales said. "A city that's self-sustainable, that respects the environment, that uses clean technologies, that is mostly for use by the people, with lots of walking paths, parks, sports areas, museums and schools within walking distance."
Government officials and engineers say the plan, at its root, is designed to help people. "This is a social housing project, for people with little money, so it's very accessible for those types of families," explained Alfredo Tirado, an engineer overseeing part of the project.
The government plans to move families from a Caracas neighborhood, Federico Quiroz, to Caribia. Federico Quiroz's cinder-block homes and narrow, winding streets are located in a steep, uneven swath of western Caracas that's prone to mudslides.
"It's a good idea because there are many people here who need a place to live," said Clemente Delgado, 40, a father of three in Federico Quiroz. "We know it's dangerous here. For me, if they make the offer, I'll accept."
Not everyone, though, is so enthused. As hilltops are cleared and trees felled to make space for Caribia, people in the nearby community of La Niebla watch with alarm. The government has said the properties there could be expropriated, though a Housing Ministry official said that is unlikely because Caribia probably won't extend so far.
Perhaps more worrisome -- particularly to urban planners and government opponents -- is that the construction is proceeding without much outside input. That has prompted frantic meetings among architects, engineers and urban planners in Caracas who say the government is rushing headstrong into expensive, ill-considered utopian projects.
"The majority of socialist cities that were built in socialist countries failed," said Maria Josefina Weitz, an urban planner in Caracas. "When you create something by ideological decree, it doesn't respond to the real needs of people. Cities have their own origin, develop on their own and have their own dynamic."
Even in Federico Quiroz, the Caracas neighborhood prone to mudslides, many residents said they are hesitant to leave.
Jose Guerrera, 33, a car mechanic, said he's heard that some residents of Caribia would be expected to work in the fields that are planned to produce food for the city. "I can't do that, because I don't know anything about that," he said, his hands dirty with engine grease. "That's not my profession."
Two other residents, Alirio Becerra and Jacinto Gomez, argued on a recent day about the pros and cons of Caribia. But both agreed that they weren't going to leave Federico Quiroz.
"I don't agree with it, and many people here don't agree," Becerra said. "No one. This is a good neighborhood, and we're used to it. We've been here 40 years."