All photographs by Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez. All rights reserved.
From 2009-2010, I served as Division Chief for Entrepreneurial Development in the economic wing of the Sucre municipal government in Caracas, an opposition stronghold, presiding over Venezuela’s biggest slum. In so being, Sucre represents a glaring electoral exception to the Chavista government’s claim as the common man’s champion: a revolutionary Lorax, if you will, to the nation’s majority poor.
This is the story of my time there.
THE ROAD THAT BROUGHT ME to Sucre was indirect.
My roots are Venezuelan, but I was primarily educated in the United States: schooling that instilled in me an excellent set of technical skills and practical know-how for some sterling career in economics or public policy somewhere other than a socialist republic in Latin America. The assumptions inherent in the American educational system — that markets are free, corruption is minimal (and largely invisible), individual initiative is valued and direct government intervention only as a last option — could hardly have been less applicable.
While attempting to reconcile these disconnects between my training and the reality of contemporary Venezuela — a country that bleeds populism after a decade of quixotic policymaking under Hugo Chávez’s “revolution” — I was reminded of a joke much loved by my deceased grandfather, a Dutchman who crossed the ocean to escape the holocaust and wound up sticking around. The joke involves a gentleman who, like me, is a dual citizen of Venezuela and the United States, but who (unlike me!) is a selfish and rather terrible person. Dying, he descends to the gates of hell for punishment, and is met by some blandly good-natured infernal bureaucrat for processing. He is told that his binationality renders him eligible for torment in either Gringo Hell or in Venezuelan Hell, and nervously inquires as to the difference. In Gringo Hell, he learns, he will be chained to a white-hot furnace for eternity, suffering thrice-daily facial drenchings from a bucket of boiling excrement. Venezuelan hell, as it turns out, is nominally identical, although the woman in charge of heating the feces is usually on vacation, and nobody ever seems able to find the bucket. Also, the furnace doesn’t work.
The message of the story was clear: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, however, and certainly in Venezuela, the difference couldn’t be more extreme.
And yet this is not always a bad thing. For my grandfather, a successful entrepreneur, his life story stood as a prime example of how chaos and inefficiency mean opportunity for those willing to work hard to rise above them. As I was the grandson living abroad, it was important to him that I understood that Venezuela’s peculiar brand of "I can't believe this shit" magical realism, so often frustrating, can at times prove a boon. This would prove true in Sucre, where the unworkable chaos we inherited from the Chávez regime would eventually be brought to some semblance of order, but only by thinking, and eventually reaching, far outside of the political box.
Caracas, in similar fashion to New York City, is divided into five semi-autonomous districts. Taking the analogy a step further, Sucre could be likened to Caracas’ Bronx, with scattered pockets of wealth and a few local industries, eclipsed almost entirely by Petare, Venezuela’s largest slum. From a distance, Petare appears as a sea of countless colorful hovels, creeping ever upward from the Caracas valley to perch precariously upon the side of the great Avila Mountain. When seen by night, and even more so from the air, Petare’s countless sparkling lights seem hauntingly beautiful: an enormous Christmas tree set on its side. Yet strip away that darkness and distance, the poetry dissipates, replaced by a violent, chaotic and very dangerous mess.
In truth nobody really knows what percentage of Sucre’s roughly 1.5 million souls (a best estimate figure based primarily on the amount of garbage they produce) actually reside in Petare. The presence of government is largely absent from the higher barrios, and attempts at census have proven largely unworkable. By coming down the mountain, Petareños can find their government, but their government rarely comes to them. Nevertheless, for whoever governs Sucre, Petare is sure to require a supermajority of their time.
Overall it is estimated that nearly three-quarters of Sucre’s population fall into the lowest two economic classifications, the poor and the very poor, groups that have traditionally represented the support base of Chavismo. However, during Venezuela’s 2008’s municipal elections, Sucre voters surprised many by uncharacteristically going over to the Venezuelan opposition. This was despite the myriad advantages, both financial and logistic, that the national government habitually heaps upon its candidates and the great weight given by many to the recommendation of the hypercharismatic Chávez.
That Carlos Ocariz, my erstwhile boss, had managed to get himself elected represents a much-needed victory for the national opposition, even if that success stemmed, in part, from outside factors. The two-term previous mayor of Sucre was at that time José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, the millionaire son of an eponymous, famous and ancient Venezuelan communist turned celebrated Chávez ally. This socialist scion, whose nepotistic rise would saddle him with the unshakable nickname “Papi Papi,” seemed to spend much of his eight-year mayoral tenure focused more on interparty politics and high-profile business ventures than on public administration. One story tells of how his family and he had been given an entire floor at the Lider, an enormous new shopping mall built right next to the mayor’s office, in exchange for facilitating its building permits, although the deal eventually went sour and that floor would subsequently sit empty.
Meanwhile, many residences in Petare lacked running water and trash collection. Municipal maintenance services had all but disappeared. The proliferation of the informal economy — most notably in the form of stationary peddlers known as “buhoneros” — had rendered many major roadways all but impassable. Worse yet, in a district of well over a million people, and one beleaguered with a murder rate hovering around one per thousand, there were only 12 police cars and 17 police motorcycles in circulation. Locals joked, with the gallows humor typical of Venezuelans, of the need for a new municipal lifeguard to sit at the narrowest point of El Guaire, the river that runs through Petare, to personally retrieve the dead bodies while decked in an “official” government wetsuit.
In short, immediately prior to Ocariz’s victory, Rangel had managed to make himself so unpopular due to perceptions of corruption and inefficiency that Venezuela’s ruling United Socialist Party ran an altogether different candidate for the post. Furthermore in 2007, as is wont to happen in Venezuela and as is likewise happening now, a vibrant antigovernment student movement had arisen, mobilizing masses of protesters, galvanizing regime opponents, and eventually handing Chávez his first and only personal electoral defeat over a constitutional amendment to end term limits. Opposition faith in the ballot box had been momentarily restored.
Yet even in this environment, so ripe for any potential challenger, Ocariz would have to overcome a great deal of suspicion from poorer citizens in order to win. Traditionally, the Venezuelan opposition had sought to rally support by way of reasoned arguments, attempting to highlight regime failures in areas such as rule of law and the economy, offering ostensibly more efficacious alternatives gleaned from international “best practice” or learned opinions from respected economists and lawyers. While this strategy worked well among the middle and upper classes, Ocariz attempted to beat the government at its own game, focusing instead on personality. Having himself lost an election for Sucre’s mayoralty to Rangel eight years before, the opposition candidate spent the intervening time solidifying his reputation in Petare, working on myriad local projects and becoming a progressively more visible thread in the community fabric. By the time of his election, he was maintaining an almost hyperkinetic daily presence in the slum, meeting with community groups and regularly posing for pictures with local families for el Facebook.
Even so, waters run deep among the urban poor voters from Petare. Only around 45 percent ended up supporting Ocariz, while a slight majority stayed faithful to the government. A great many more abstained. Given the low turnout, the opposition’s large minority, buttressed by the votes of around 90 percent of Sucre’s middle class residents, had proven sufficient for election. It was clear, however, that these support levels would have to be maintained and expanded upon lest the gains prove fleeting. Chávez himself had consistently won in Sucre during presidential contests, and seemed certain to continue to do so. Inroads into the government by the opposition represented less a rejection of the government’s platform per se than a hesitant willingness to take a chance on new blood as a result of increasingly unlivable conditions.
Despite a national political climate where charisma and revolutionary rhetoric often carry more weight than coherent policies or actual results, success in Sucre would hinge on the latter. The stakes were high. Ocariz’s victory in 2008 represented a potentially exportable model by which the Venezuelan opposition could hope to make gains outside of their traditional middle-class havens, and, as such, the national government was determined to see the new administration fail, soon cutting off access to federal financing and to the vast oil profits of PDVSA, the national oil company. Furthermore, in a scenario not unfamiliar to American readers, the regime loyalists still manning Sucre’s municipal council fell into line behind their “Comandante,” refusing to pass a budget, lest in doing so they assist their foes in establishing some semblance of permanency. Even given the low bar set by the previous administration in terms of local security, infrastructure and basic services, the chances their successors would fare any better absent regular injections of petro-liquidity were nil. And absent results, Sucre would soon come back to the Chavista fold.
This was the overarching conundrum we faced when I first joined the Sucre government in late 2009. While the local taxation system, particularly as regarded industry and commerce, might generate some revenue (assuming it could actually be rendered functional), doing so would take time and, on its own, would likely prove insufficient. While struggling to even provide constituents with basic services — lights, sanitation, serviceable roads, police — absent the petro-support so regularly lavished upon administrations run by Socialist party faithful that until so recently had included Sucre, how could we even maintain the status quo, let alone tackle its soaring crime, sanitation crisis, utilities shortfalls and lack of healthcare? To say nothing of the buhoneros…?
Throughout Caracas, but particularly in Petare, buhoneros are legion — hawking food and cheap manufactured goods to passersby from small street stands or ramshackle kiosks. Their sheer numbers, and decades-old penchant for ignoring any regulatory and legal restriction, have created considerable local disruption for years: impassable traffic jams, visibly violent infighting and the myriad health risks of selling unregulated food products — fish, meats and fruits — often made toxic by the 80°+ Caracas swelter.
The buhoneros make their own rules, and have done so since long before Chávez. They are a highly insular community possessing its own values, leaders and rudimentary systems of justice and wealth redistribution. While most operate on municipal land, many of these had been working the same location for decades, and maintained a strong emotional (if not legal) sense of entitlement and ownership over it.
Among the residents of Petare the “buhonero problem” was seen as a staggering constraint on the betterment of the district, but an inescapable one. And while this was but one of many such challenges, it was certainly among the most visible. Over decades, governments of every political persuasion had attempted unsuccessfully to bully, bribe or negotiate the buhoneros into relocating or dispersing. Elsewhere in Caracas, the national government had even gone so far as to use force to disperse them from public streets, often resulting in violent clashes. This option was clearly unavailable to us, however, lest some incident or altercation be used by the regime as an excuse to disband municipal police forces and co-opt police functions and faculties into the national government. In early 2009, the regime-controlled National Assembly had wielded a series of such spurious excuses to take away essentially all the responsibility and authority from Antonio Ledezma, an opposition heavyweight elected Governor of Caracas as a whole, transferring his responsibilities instead to a presidential appointee. Weary of invoking similar treatment, we would have to avoid any obvious use of force to solve our problems.
It was necessary instead to think creatively, and find some negotiated alternative. The buhoneros leaders, many of them tried and tested impresarios of public persuasion, understood that by limiting their own numbers, those who remained stood to receive greater income. A recent wave of immigrants from Colombia, Ecuador and Haiti had been setting up their own kiosks in Petare, increasing competition and often undercutting the prices offered by the traditional buhonero groups. Keenly aware of market realities, they agreed to help us establish a new licensing regimen, provided that their old guard would be on an inside track. Unfortunately, this attempt to cull buhonero numbers through licensing was to prove messy, and from the outset the system was abused. Licensed buhoneros sold and rented their licenses to friends, or forged new ones, and readily bribed underpaid police officers and caseworkers into turning a blind eye.
In the Venezuelan public sector, corruption is inescapable. Stagnant salaries and a national currency with an annual inflation rate often north of 50 percent means that with many notable exceptions, there are essentially three main types of Venezuelans most able to participate in public service: people from affluent families or who are otherwise already wealthy; people doing the equivalent of an internship to gain professional experience early on in their careers; and those who will eventually learn to supplement their income through minor corruption — if only to provide for their families. Given the class dynamic at work in Venezuela, and the resultant cultural connection between age and authority, it was the final group that was most able to get things accomplished in Petare, for they were taken far more seriously than many other individuals in public service.
As such, by necessity, one soon learns to turn a blind eye to minor “misappropriations” by colleagues, psychologically dislodging one’s personal relationships from value judgments. After all, personal relationships are everything in Venezuelan government, even at the institutional level. This informal dynamic breeds an air of familiarity and informality that readily lends itself to deal making. In some cases, as with the buhoneros, this translated into outright corruption, but — as with my grandfather’s story — it can also sometimes provide a lifeline.
Networking our way into the boardrooms and CEO suites of local industries and companies — the embattled remnants of the private sector in Venezuela — we were consistently met with sympathy. Feeling themselves under siege by the government, business owners very much wanted to see us succeed. However, converting this goodwill into more overt financial support still required identifying specific projects that would benefit potential funders in concrete ways.
Typically, the overarching theme of such pitches would go something like this:
Hello company owner. Thank you for contacting us regarding your problems getting your delivery trucks out into the street as the area in front of your warehouse is currently saturated with buhoneros. The Mayor’s Office sympathizes with your plight, so much so that we have magnanimously decided to build the buhoneros a nice municipal marketplace and ship them there. This will get them out of the rain and broiling tropical sun to a place where their customers can come to them, and where they won’t bother you. The only snag is that we don’t actually have a municipal marketplace. Nor do we really have the funds to build one. Fancy paying for it?
To be sure, we also played somewhat on our target’s underlying fears. The national government’s well-known fondness for expropriation and nationalization became our greatest ally. We marketed our joint projects not only in terms of the immediate opportunity, but also as a potential shield. On previous occasions, attempted seizures of private business by the government had been turned back in response to strong community support for company owners. Since companies intervened upon by the government would usually disappear, or at best remain only nominally open as a shill for perfunctory employment, they would never again be an active presence within the community. Where that presence was considered sufficiently valuable, neighborhoods would become agitated and the national government, hesitant to dismay potential voters from their base, would sometimes back down. So, in exchange for financial support, we would be helping to fortify this community bond, ostentatiously publicizing their role in helping out. After all, unlike the national government, we did not have to plaster Chávez’s face on everything, so there would be more than enough space to plaster company logos.
The constant creativity required among those of us working in Sucre to get results on a shoestring budget would eventually become a hallmark of the Ocariz administration. New sports teams, such as the Petare Fútbol Club, were brought into being to foment community spirit. Municipal outdoor movie nights and community fairs became common, in hopes of getting people to feel safer outside, even at night, a perception that would in turn become reality. What’s more, in 2011, over 120 street mimes were hired and unleashed upon the unsuspecting streets of Petare so as to theatrically shame and humiliate unsafe drivers and pedestrians and potential hooligans. By the end of 2011, crime had dropped 40 percent.
With many such projects being undertaken in conjunction with private sector entities, the mayoralty was able to focus meager tax revenues on day-to-day expenditures — hiring more cops, and paying them better, first and foremost. As it turned out, there had also been a considerable amount of back tax that the previous administration either deliberately failed to claim, missed or most likely just never bothered to follow up on. These funds would help tie the municipality over early on, until such a time as the local taxation system could be refurbished and made to operate.
In the end, while still facing myriad challenges, the municipality is managing to make due. What’s more, despite the government’s efforts, the opposition was able to hold on to Sucre during municipal elections in 2013. This important victory remains a rare ray of optimism in a bleak landscape for those holding on to hope that Venezuela can emerge from her current darkness into something brighter.