Christmas in a Caracas barrio
It’s not that the water disappears two days a week. Neither that we have to be at home by 8 pm before it becomes too risky to roam the streets. Neither that the streets, shops, metros and buses are congested like a school of mackerel in syrup by people out spending their December wages and Christmas bonuses. Neither that you have to use knees and elbows to even reach the butcher’s counter.
No, it is the high-volume Christmas preparations that are the most annoying thing with living in a Caracas barrio – shantytown - right now. The kids are throwing small firecrackers that explode with a loud and sharp SCHNAPPP. And everywhere the gaita is sounding- the Venezuelan Christmas music that for an untrained ear sounds pretty much like salsa. From early in the morning until late at night, the barrio is sounding of gaita and SCHNAPPP in high volumes. You have no chance of escaping in behind closed doors neither- sound travels well through brick walls and roofs or corrugated iron.
I am doing fieldwork in the shantytowns of Caracas, accompanied by my husband and our 10 months old daughter. We are living high up in the hills in one of the Western barrios of Caracas; in one of these hills covered by tens of thousands of red brick stone houses thrown on top of each other, connected by a spider web of hundreds of thousands of telephone and electricity cables. From a distance it looks like an overwhelming chaos, but from the inside everyday life is passing by as everywhere else. Cada quien conoce su hueco, they say in Venezuela: everyone knows their hole. Or in other words, people construct the manageable microworlds where they live and move, no matter how chaotic it looks in from a bird´s eye view.
The barrios of Caracas have expanded organically since the 1960s when the oil boom drove people in masses from the countryside to the city centers by the coast in search for work. What started out as dispersed shacks in the hills hovering over the city valley of Caracas, over time grew into communities that by their own hands (or occasionally by government effort, usually around election time) set up basic water, electricity and sewage systems.
And as long as there are poor people looking for a place to live, the barrios continue to grow. Those who can, build on the top of the family home as long as gravity permits it, which is what gives the barrio the particular sprawling, thrown-upon-eachother look from the outside. This is engineering at its best. Those who have no family home to construct upon set up brick houses or card board shacks on the fringes of the established barrio communities or at whichever spot they can find.
However, this is not without risk. The sloping hills, combined with erosion, often become death traps when the tropical rain sets in. Set up on river edges, next to ravines or barely clinging to the hills, many people used to die trapped in the ruins of their own houses each year.
In 1999 happened what is only called the “tragedy of Vargas”. On the 14th of December heavy rain starts to fall over Caracas and the neighboring states. In the evening on the 15th, the barrio hills along the densely populated coast line started to slide into the Atlantic Ocean. When the landslide ended towards the end of the following day on the 16th, the coastline had disappeared, and an unknown number- some estimates reach 30 000 people- were killed, buried in brick, debris and mud. Whole families disappeared. The horrors and tragedies were unimaginable. Many were washed into the Atlantic Ocean never to be seen again.
The exact death numbers were never established. This was the year after the election of Chavez. For 40 years, barrios had been spaces of exclusion existing on the margins of official society. Many of the shantytown communities didn’t even appear on the city map, and there were no exact numbers as to how many people actually lived there. Thus, even today no one knows how many people lost their lives during those horrible days, but if you start to talk about it, people lower their voices and shake their heads as in disbelief of that it actually happened.
Towards the end of November 2010 massive rains started to fall again. Several of the coastal states were declared state of emergency. But this time the government was prepared. Over the past ten years, the barrio communities and the state had established close organizational networks, and the barrios were no longer viewed upon as marginalized territories. People were evacuated on a massive scale. The death tolls reached 34 people, some of them because they resisted the rescuers’ orders to evacuate. Moreover, 130 000 people lost their houses or where forbidden to move back to their homes when the rains stopped. The damnificados, as the homeless are called, moved into hotels and schools, in government building and even in the presidential palace. The government promised that they would find them new homes to them.
In April 2011, President Chavez launched Gran Mision Vivienda Venezuela- the grand Venezuelan housing mission. Not only would the homeless from the 2010 rains be assigned new homes, but everyone else living in inadequate housing conditions were also encourage to apply for new homes . The government vowed to build 2 million new homes between 2011 and 2017, which was the estimated housing deficit across Venezuela. This would be done through a concerted effort by the state, the private sectors and the grass root networks in the shantytown communities who during the past years had been given more and more responsibility in improving living conditions through government support and resources. More than 10 million people registered, supplying data on social and economic conditions, which would be the basis of an analysis of whom were eligible or not. More than 13 000 people worked with receiving applications and veryfying the information. By the end of November 2012, 293.799 homes- apartments or houses, depending on location, have been constructed. The government is hoping to round off on 300.000 by the end of December. The overall goal has been set to 3 million homes by the end of Chavez’ presidential period in 2019.
The homes are not given away for free- people are receiving favorable loans, some topped with subsides depending on their economic capacity. The poorest of the poor are however given the houses with 100 percent subsidies.
It has not been a smooth process. Stories of of corruption and nepotism are rife, and construction workers have been on strike for irregularities in payments. And ofcourse, when it comes to Chavez, accusations of populism, paternalism and presidentialism are never far away.
But the human dimension deserves to be highlighed in a region where millions of people live in precarius, unhealthy and even dangerous housing conditions. For many people this is a dream coming true. For the first time in their life, they have a vivienda digna – a dignified home. Not a humid hole with mold on the walls. Not a precarious shack that keeps them awake when it rains, ready to run if the ground gives in. But a home with windows, floors and a door to lock.
At the moment, many damnificados are still living in hotels and refugee centers across Gran Caracas, and many others are hoping that they soon will be able to move from the shacks and rented rooms where they live. Recently, Chavez ordered a Christmas bonus of 2000 Bolivares (around 2600 NOK) to those who still lived as refugees, hoping that it could make Christmas a bit more comfortable for them.
Meanwhile, for the rest of us who live in relatively comfortable shantytown conditions, Christmas comes with its own challenges. Above all, the gaita-music and the SCHNAPPP. I swear to God, if that neighboring snotty kid throws another firecracker on the iron roof again whilst my baby takes her nap, I will snap myself.