food / travel

Visiting A Surprisingly Quiet And Cheerful Side Of Caracas

A recent trip to Caracas showed a city where many people continue to function for better or worse, and where the rich are still living large.

The Plaza Francia in Altamira, Caracas
The Plaza Francia in Altamira, Caracas
Ramón Campos Iriarte

CARACAS — Sure, a recent visit to the Venezuelan capital offered scenes of the country's division between supporters and opponents of President Nicolás Maduro. But perhaps the more stark differences on display are between a politicized minority and millions of Venezuelans pursuing their lives as best as they can.

With my colleague Alejandro, we arrived at Maiquetía Airport on a dawn flight from Panama. I was nervous entering the country, with my cameras and a Colombian passport at a time of tensions between the neighboring governments. After checking my bag and asking a couple of questions, a uniformed official let me through.

We stepped out into a thick, dry air. There is always a sweet smell of gasoline here, as I recall from my last visit two years ago. Our driver Emerson was waiting to take us into the city in an old Toyota Corolla. He earns a living taking goods to and from the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. He took us to our hotel, the Waldorf, which had raised the price of our rooms from $80 a night to $97.

After breakfast we drove around the city, and noticed numerous fruit and vegetable trucks. We were told import shortages had brought local horticulture to life, and small producers found an opportunity to sell produce cheaply in cities. Spontaneous peasant markets had thus appeared to meet the immense urban demand for fresh food. Amid a creeping dollarization of the economy, these still charge in bolivars, the local currency.

We later went to Petare, a populous district east of Caracas, to meet with Ibrahim, a local collaborator of El Espectador. He lives with his wife in an apartment provided by the government. The apartment block is new and sober, with concrete corridors and steel doors. Their apartment came with a fridge, which we noted was filled with food. He said he barters things he needs with his brother, and receives basic foodstuffs from the government's CLAP program. There is a CLAP box on the floor, with pasta, oil, tuna and the like imported from Mexico and Brazil.

Journalists on site had helmets, in anticipation of violence. But there was none.

The government says it has handed over 2.6 million homes, as part of its Venezuela Great Housing Mission. The buildings are easy to distinguish (apparently built by the Chinese) as their façades bear a big signature of the late leader, Hugo Chávez.

It was a Saturday, and the country's opposition leader and speaker of parliament Juan Guaidó had called for a big protest in the capital. So we went to the Alfredo Sadel square in the posh district of Las Mercedes, to observe. About a thousand people turned up. They looked well-heeled, with white skin, iPhones and some with bodyguards. There were some darker people too, selling baseball caps and T-shirts with anti-government slogans.

Some elderly ladies warned a group of hooded youths not to start any trouble. Journalists on site had helmets, in anticipation of violence. But there was none. The Bolivarian National Guard did not show up and Guaidó made another speech (declaring the "imminent" end of the regime) on a plastic podium. People applauded, and then dispersed.

We went for lunch at a grill, then drove around Chacao, where the rich live in villas and meet in private clubs. At the Caracas Country Club, gentlemen were playing golf. Clearly at the heart of the opposition, there are people who are immune to President Donald Trump's sanctions.

In the evening we went to a pizza and dance joint inside the city's big opera house, the Teresa Carreño theater. There was salsa, pizzas and not a free table in sight. Beer flowed and we could not hear a single conversation about Maduro or Guaidó. Four pizzas and 12 beers cost us $30.

The Teresa Carreño theater — Photo: José Gregorio Ferrer

On Monday, we sought out a gasoline station to fill up Emerson's Toyota. To the question of how much it costs to fill up, we heard the incredible if now familiar answer here, that the bolivar is so worthless now that people no longer pay for fuel, but tip the attendant. Emerson filled up with 15 liters, for the nominal cost of 89.4 bolivars, or 1.6 cents.

We later met members of the Bolivarian Militia, a paramilitary force with 1.5 million members. Expecting an "imperialist" invasion, these have been variously trained to use firearms, or store foodstuffs or fuel in a hypothetical invasion. A member and former soldier, José Lugo, told me the regime's strategy was to wear down the opposition and avoid confrontation. He said chaos gave Guaidó his arguments, but a relative state of peace and the impossibility of overthrowing President Maduro robbed the opposition of momentum.

The regime's strategy was to wear down the opposition and avoid confrontation.

Like the capital's prosperous districts, pro-government neighborhoods are over-politicized zones where you can breathe the conflict. But as elsewhere in the world, politics is not the main concern of the vast majority of Venezuelans. Caracas is not under martial law, and people come and go. Hundreds of thousands have admittedly left the capital, but one feels a sense of normality here.

Driving to the airport on our departure day, we see vast billboards demanding the liberation of Leopoldo López, one of the country's leading opponents (now a guest of the Spanish embassy). Events have eroded their relevance, and the tropical climate faded their colors. But neither Maduro nor López nor anyone can be bothered to have them taken down.

I thought Caracas is similar to any Latin American city, with its problems, poverty, traffic jams and corruption, but also its liveliness, guts and savvy, and a social fabric as tough as old boots. I was surprised coming from Colombia, because this is not what you read in the news. But then, peace and quiet don't sell.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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