In the middle of December the richest Veneauelans took airplanes to Paris and the Carribbean islands and Miami -- where they buy things with such ferocity, like other South Americans with money, that you can find Spanish-language travel brochures pointing out that Miami's second most attractive feature is its beach.

Some of them went on private jets. Near the center of Caracas is an airstrip where small planes buzz in and out between the deep green mountains that run along either side of the city.

People left by car also, to the beach towns or to see their families in the interior. Stores pulled their metal shutters. A lone guard sat in the empty lobby of the Congress building. The warm wind ripped at the Christmas reindeer hanging from overhead wires. On New Year's Eve, the people who had stayed behind lit Roman candles on their rooftops. All night you could see the white plumes of the fireworks.

The people with money stayed away through Epiphany, Jan. 6. Now they are coming back and every morning the roar down below is a little louder. One great freeway runs straight through the valley that holds Caracus. The subway is still giant holes in ground. Jitneys only carry 10 people or so apiece, and the buses clatter along on unpredictable schedules, trailing brown clouds.

Gasoline costs 30 cents a gallon. The city tried to cut auto traffic by limiting each car to six days on the road per week; a lot of people bought extra cars.

VENEZUELANS QUIVER when they talk about the Caracas traffic, the bleak lines of commuters waiting an hour in the rain for a jitney, the appointments where you have to leave an extra hour's travel time because the buses and Mercedes Benzes and 1958 Chevrolets may grind to a halt, with their radios blaring and the taxi drivers leaning on their horns and all the engine exhaust settling somewhere among the glass and concrete skyscrapers. t

It feels, to the stranger, like a city assaulted by money. Sociologists and economists use terms like "economic indigestion" and "the Venezuela effect" to describe the phenomenon of an industrially developing country where wealth comes suddenly and in such quantity that the nation cannot cope with it.

Even Veneauelan nationalists still use the poor-family-wins-the-sweepstakes metaphor here. "If in July you are used to living with a thousand dollars a month," said a senior member of the Democratic Action Party, which lost the presidential election, "and suddenly in August they start putting five thousand dollars in your hands, you say, 'Caramba.' You're used to the thousand dollars, and managing that money well. But now you will buy a fancy car, you will buy a yacht -- and this is what has happened to Venezuela."

IN THE SEVEN years since the first major OPEC price rise, the Venezuelan budget -- which is fed on almost nothing but oil -- has grown from $3.5 billion to $17.5 billion. That is an increase of 500 percent. By the time Luis Herrera Campins won their presidency 20 months ago, the nation was beginning to stagger under the lavish projects of his predecessor: factories, a huge hydroelectric plant, whole industrial communities, all riddled with debt.

There were elegant apartments for the upwardly mobile, and the watch-store windows gleamed with gold-faced Seikos and Tissots. But you could get up in the morning and find that the water pressure was gone again, and the rats had found the garbage bag that never got picked up, and the giant pothole still yawned in the street out front.

Herrera Campins cut back credit, pulled the economy into a cooling-off period, and made a public campaign of "evaluating" the enormous expansion plans and sudden massive foreign debt he inherited. Giant cranes poke into the skyline like church steeples, but the construction business has slowed down considerably. The effect is of some great awkward blueprint, where gestures toward urban extravagance falter in the oddest places.

There are sleek lighted walkways that end without warning, so that to reach the thoroughfare just below, you climb over a concrete wall. The government buildings are a mile or so from the elaborate new residential and shopping complex that contains the Caracuas Hilton. A good city walk, you decide, and you start out in the direction of the hotel. Then the sidewalk runs out. It turns into a four-lane freeway overpass. There is nothing to do but follow the Venezuelans and walk on the overpass, pressed against the edge to avoid being mashed by pickup trucks.

You cash your traveler's check in a bank shining with electric typewriters. The secretary who takes your currency-exchange form does not know how to type. She is pleasant and earnest but nobody has taught her to type.

The hotel entrance is graced with a wide, modern fountain, but the only real view of the falling water is from a windowless wall.

The manhole covers have spikes on them, so the cab drivers have to veer to save their tires. A lot of the streets have no street signs. Two blocks from the mausoleum where four honor guards surround the golden coffin that contains the remains of Simon Bolivar, a small bridge looks down on what appears to be a 20-foot mound of very old garbage.

The country has the highest gross national product per capita in South America but 30 percent of the people still live below the proverty line, and the gap seems to be widening rather than narrowing. Mugging stories abound. "I suppose I was lucky they used a wooden club on me," someone said. "I'm told lead pipes are more popular." In some of the ranchos, which is the genteel name the Venezuelans give their slums, concrete steps and electric lighting lend a look of permanence to the poverty that marches straight up the hills behind the city's best hotels.