Hugo Chávez and the Tragedy of the Venezuelan Arrival City
Hugo Chávez and the Tragedy of the Venezuelan Arrival City
This is a chapter from my book Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World.
Revolutionary movements originating in the wealthy centre, probably beginning with the Jacobins in 1789, have used the grievances and frustrations of the arrival city as their source of ideological and human support, and then abandoned those communities as soon as they come to power.
A most extreme and fascinating variation on this theme is found in Venezuela, where the “Bolivarian revolution” that began with the election of Col. Hugo Chávez to the presidency in 1999 promised to produce a South American government focused exclusively on the arrival city. Turning the rural-migrant slums into the symbolic instrument of their legitimacy, the Chávez regime managed to stoke these marginal lives into a revolutionary conflagration, and then to provoke a fresh crisis in the arrival city.
To understand what went wrong, it’s worth speaking to the residents of Petare, an enormous shantytown community that covers a large upper slope of the Caracas valley, a dense warren of streets that overlooks the wealthier city below. The slums of Caracas are likely the most vertical in the world; rural arrivals have spent decades staking their claims on theoretically uninhabitable rock walls, the residents of Petare jerry-building steep cascades of squatter settlements that are both physically and economically precarious.
Its people—they number between 400,000 and 900,000, depending how they’re counted—have been described from the beginning as Chávez’s most ardent supporters and most lavishly rewarded beneficiaries. The Mexican writer Alma Guillermoprieto described this slum as embodying the essence of the Chávez revolution. “Petare has … possibly more chavistas [followers of Chávez] per square foot, and more cohesively organized, than anywhere else in the country. It is in Petare that Hugo Chávez’s ambitious social welfare programs are implemented most ambitiously, because he has turned the poor into his de facto party, and as a result, whether his presidency stands or falls can be determined by the residents of this barrio.”
These would prove to be prophetic words, as we shall see. It is no surprise that a new sort of arrival-city politics arose in Venezuela, for this oil state has had huge arrival cities longer than most countries. Venezuela was one of the first developing countries to make an urban transition, its population becoming 61 per cent urban by 1961. From 1941 through 1961, the annual growth rate averaged more than 7 per cent, greater than any other city in Latin America. As in Iran, ultra-rapid migration was encouraged without much consideration for either village or urban destination. During the 1970s, rising petroleum prices created an employment boom in Caracas, and governments encouraged tens of thousands of villagers to migrate to the city, tolerating their “land invasions” and occasionally granting them ownership of their squatter homes in exchange for electoral support.
The economy was virtually engineered to prevent a decent urban transition. Beginning in 1970, food prices were set by a Law of Agricultural Marketing, and then price controls were extended to 80 per cent of wage goods in 1974. This was accompanied by the massive subsidizing of goods at the consumer level, notably food and gasoline—an expenditure that amounted to 7 per cent of government revenues—and rigid currency-exchange controls. These policies continued in the 1980s, this time without the oil revenues to back them, leading to staggering government debt. Together, these rigid policies had several effects. They destroyed the agricultural industry, sending hundreds of thousand of people fleeing the villages for Caracas, and they provoked high levels of inflation, which destroyed the non-oil-productive economy. This, in turn, led to double-digit unemployment, which struck just as the slums on the outskirts were becoming most crowded.
In 1989, as the government was forced to abandon its gasoline subsidies in order to receive emergency bailout loans, the slums of Caracas exploded into days of violent rioting and repression known as the Caracazo. Bodies shot by government soldiers were dumped in Petare. This set the seeds for Chávez’s unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992 and then his successful presidential election, built on the support of arrival-city residents, in 1998. By that point, Petare was badly in need of state support: the endless shantytown slums of Caracas were becoming unlivable, their canyons of sewage undermining the very hills that supported them, causing their roads to collapse and entire neighbourhoods to plummet off the hills in rivers of mud and human waste. There were no jobs, and crime was rife.
The Bolivarian revolution seemed to be made for the arrival city, and Chávez was lucky enough to launch it just as petroleum prices were beginning their decade-long climb, providing him with the resources to support it. By 2003, Chávez had established the signature programs of his revolution, the “social missions” (misiones) aimed mainly at the urban poor. Key programs were Mission Robinson and Mission Ribas, which taught basic literacy and skills-training courses to Venezuelan adults; Mission Mercal, which provided subsidized, low-cost meat, grains and dairy products in the barrios; Mission Barrio Adentro, which provided free health care in the slums; and Mission Hábitat, which was intended to replace slums with 100,000 new units of high-quality housing per year.
There is no question that large sums of money were poured into the arrival cities of Caracas during the first decade of the Bolivarian revolution, or that the arrival-city residents appreciated any food, health care and money that came their way. Yet it quickly became apparent that the social missions were doing nothing for the arrival city in terms of its most important needs: land ownership, business opportunities, an autonomous economy and a pathway into the middle class. The residents of Petare knew what was needed for this, but were never asked.
They soon realized that the social missions directed at their barrio had not delivered. While the free food and money brought about a decrease in absolute poverty during the period in which the money was coming, the arrival-city residents complained that nothing lasting was being built. This was often literally true. Housing construction never really got going; 150,000 homes were meant to be built, and fewer than 35,000 were, many of them social-housing apartment blocks that didn’t suit the needs of arrival-city residents. There was never any effort to give the arrival cities a chance to determine what housing suited their needs. Such long-term investments never became a priority, and in fact declined: average per capita levels of public spending on housing dropped by a third between the 1990–98 period (against which Chávez had campaigned) and his own 1999–2004 period.
As for the education programs, these have been shown in extensive studies to have produced no measurable decrease in illiteracy. The writer Tina Rosenberg, on a visit to a slum near Petare, was surprised to find how Mission Ribas functioned: “Political and ideological training, Ribas officials told me, is the top qualification for a facilitator. I attended a session for new Ribas students in Las Torres, a La Vega barrio near the top of the mountain. After Ribas officials told students how to register for classes and what would be expected of them, María Teresa Curvelo, the district coordinator, began a 90-minute talk about a referendum of great importance to the government … Afterward we rode down the mountain in a truck. When she got out, I thanked her. ‘Fatherland, Socialism or Death!’ she replied.”
At the end of 2008, Petare rebelled. Along with many other poor urban neighbourhoods, it turned against the revolution, defeating the Bolivarian candidates in regional elections and protesting against the failure of the social missions. Petare’s member of Parliament, Jesse Chacón, one of Chávez’s best-known allies, was defeated by Carlos Ocariz, a social-democratic opposition candidate. “There were people who got tired of the same old thing—it was payback,” said Arleth Argote, a 31-year-old voter who had enthusiastically backed Chávez during the previous decade, then became frustrated as the arrival city failed to evolve into a thriving community. “People are tired of living poorly,” Ocariz told reporters. “It was a struggle between ideology and daily life.”
What Chávez had done, in essence, was to replace existing state programs with his own “revolutionary” programs, staffed by volunteers and visiting Cuban professionals, and with an ideological, rather than an economic or social, mission. The largest sum of money was spent subsidizing consumption, which did not change the underlying conditions, and often replaced programs that might have done so. As a result, rather than improving life, these programs actually caused a sharp decrease in the material conditions of the rural-migrant poor. Between 1999 and 2006, the proportion of Venezuelan families living on dirt floors almost tripled, from 2.5 per cent to 6.8 per cent; the percentage with no access to running water rose from 7.2 to 9.4 per cent; the percentage of underweight babies rose from 8.4 per cent to 9.1 per cent. Despite the rhetoric, Chávez decreased the proportion of public spending on health, education and housing compared with the years leading up to his attempted coup. Most tellingly, social inequality actually increased during the years of the revolution, according to the regime’s own estimates. It has been described as a process of “hollow growth”: even though the oil-dominated economy grew by 9 per cent each year in Chávez’s first decade, it failed to create jobs, and half of Venezuela’s factories closed their doors between 1998 and 2008, mainly because price and foreign-exchange controls made it impossible to do business.
That view was reinforced by Edmond Saade, a generally regime-supporting scholar who runs the Caracas-based Datos research firm. He realized, a few years into the regime, that the money spilling into the arrival cities of Caracas was leaving no lasting effect. “The poor of Venezuela are living much better lately and have increased their purchasing power … [but] without being able to improve their housing, education level, and social mobility,” he told an interviewer. “Rather than help them become stakeholders in the economic system, what [the Chávez regime] has done is distribute as much oil wealth as possible in missions and social programs.” In the view of disgruntled regime supporters, Chávez had done exactly what previous governments had: poured oil money into the economy, thus causing inflation and destroying the possibility of slum-based entrepreneurship, and given vote-winning handouts to the people on the margins, ignoring their real needs. “Despite its revolutionary rhetoric and its curtailment of democratic institutions,” the economist Norman Gall concluded in an impressive study, “the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ seems merely to be continuing the history of colossal waste of oil revenues, disorganization and failed investments that have impoverished the Venezuelan people in recent decades.” By the end of its first decade, the first great South American revolution of the arrival cities had fizzled, failing to deliver the rural migrants anything it had promised. Chávez, his popularity fluctuating wildly, turned his attention toward dramatic seizures and nationalizations of foreign companies, all but forgetting the promises of housing, development and more prosperous slums. In Petare, time froze.
This was, like its Iranian cousin, an explosion from the urban centre that simply used the arrival city as fuel. There is another way arrival cities can explode: by developing their own potent political movements and sending them inward to seize the political centre of the larger city, and possibly the nation. The arrival-city takeover of the city and the nation is a new phenomenon, but is likely to become the defining political event of this century, as neglected ex-migrant communities, which in many countries will soon represent a majority of the population, demand their own representation.