[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Venezuela Plans New Cities As Socialist Utopias
jancius at ohio.edu
Mon Dec 3 14:18:16 EST 2007
Chávez's 'Socialist City' Rises
First of Several Grand Projects in Venezuela Reflects Leader's Monopoly on
By Juan Forero, Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 27, 2007; Page A10
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
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
"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
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
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
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