Friday, February 28, 2020

A disaster waiting to happen (2000)

From the February 2000 of the Socialist Standard 

When the global economic crisis hit, first, the Pacific Rim countries and, later, Latin America and elsewhere, just over a couple of years ago, Venezuela was, as we noted (Socialist Standard, October 1998), particularly vulnerable. It had been economically and politically unstable for at least two decades, and corruption was rife (see Socialist Standard, September 1999).

In February last year, Hugo Chavez, the former paratrooper who had led a failed military coup d’√©tat seven years previously, was elected president; and in August, he and his left-wing coalition won an overwhelming victory (but on a 53 percent turnout) in the elections to the National Assembly. He had proposed a complete rewriting of the constitution, the draft of which went before the new assembly, and was passed on 16 December.

According to his mainly right-wing critics, President Chavez has become a virtual dictator. He has increased, against the general trend worldwide, state intervention and control of the economy, reduced civilian control of the armed forces, and has probably secured the presidency for himself until 2012. He says that he needs such powers in order to “root out corruption” which, of course, he blames on previous governments. And, said Chavez, he would solve Venezuela’s economic ills. Nevertheless, between February last year, when he became president, and the beginning of December, unemployment had increased by a massive 700,000.

On polling day, last August, there was heavy rainfall throughout much of Venezuela, causing a number of landslides, 37 deaths, and the destruction of up to 2,000 homes. But worse was to come.

Beginning around 10 December, almost a year’s average rain fell, outside the usual rainy season, in five days. Torrential rain continued for another five days. The worse affected area was the tiny Vargas state bordering the Caribbean Sea in the north-west of Venezuela. Much of the country is flat; but there are hills and mountains, such as Mount Avila, inland and parallel to the coast, from Guacara in the west to the east of Caracas, the capital.

By 15 December, huge amounts of mud as well as large rocks and boulders began to slide down towards the coast. The soils, have, moreover, suffered constant erosion over the years; and when the natural dykes broke rivers formed, sending floods of muddy water onto the low-lying areas. Large swathes of the northern coast were swept into the sea. One of the towns to be worse hit was Carmen de Uria. It only had dirt roads; and it straddled what had been a small river, which had no proper embankment. After 10 days of rain, the river overflowed, cascading through many homes. Shortly after, Carmen de Uria was entirely buried under mud.

Floods like these claimed 100,000 lives in Venezuela

“It was,” said Piero Feliziani, an Italian geologists, “a holocaust waiting to happen.” But it need not have caused so much death, destruction and misery, even if it was a “natural” disaster. (The Archbishop of Caracas said that the rains “were divine retribution” for President Chavez’s radical policies!)

The basic cause, however, was the rapid development of a commodity-producing, capitalist, market economy from the early 1950s. According to Michael McCaughan in the Observer:
  “Venezuela, like neighbouring Colombia and Peru, was a largely rural society with strong family community ties until the fifties, when civil unrest and depressed crop prices forced millions into misery belts around the cities, where they piled high in precarious dwellings” (26 December).
For decades, there has been rapid, uncontrolled, unregulated immigration from the rural areas of extreme poverty to, and around, Caracas and other cities seeking employment, first, in the expanding oil industry and, then, in tourism. Indeed Venezuela’s weak economy depends almost entirely on oil and tourism for its foreign revenue. Vargas state has 500,000 workers who service the tourist industry, or commute each day to Caracas from the shanty towns and ranchos in the hills surrounding the capital. “Corrupt politicians and planners” turned a blind eye to such developments, where up to 350,000 workers existed, often without electricity, running water or main drainage.

This urban overpopulation is, according to Luisa Romero, an investment broker based in New York, “one more effect of the globalised economy”. It has also resulted in the death, disappearance and loss of habitation of hundreds of thousands of workers. Indeed, at the time of writing these lines, the numbers are not known, and may never be known, but have been estimated at more than 450,000, then times the number killed in Venezuela’s previous catastrophe, the earthquake of 1812.

Surely, if nothing else, the events and disaster in Venezuela at the end of 1999 demonstrate the need to replace capitalism by a new, democratic society of production, not of profit, but of use and the satisfaction of people’s needs; a socialist society of common ownership of natural resources (including Venezuela’s oil reserves if still required) and the means of production.
Peter E. Newell

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