New York Times
by Simon Romero
When a group of urban planners from Harvard and M.I.T. arrived here in the early 1960s to design an industrial city almost entirely from scratch, they envisioned a “Pittsburgh of the tropics” that could anchor industrialization and population growth in southeastern Venezuela.
That vision of a city for 250,000 people materialized into a place known for its relative prosperity. But as the population grew — it is now estimated at one million — and some of the competition for land and jobs grew violent, Ciudad Guayana has become emblematic of a new kind of urban disarray. Its problems are attracting scrutiny as President Hugo Chávez embarks on a phase of utopian city building.
Bands of Warao Indians who migrated from the Orinoco River delta beg for food at intersections here. For commuters too poor to afford cars in a sprawling city with scant public transportation, bulging pickup trucks called perreras, a term loosely translated as dogmobiles, are the only option.
And not far from subdivisions for elite civil servants, with ranch-style houses and spacious driveways for sport utility vehicles, wooden shacks put up by migrants from throughout Venezuela reflect a severe housing shortage that has led to frequent clashes between the police and squatters.
“Today, we share the same problems as the rest of Venezuela,” said Leopoldo Villalobos, a prominent historian who lives here and who has tracked the city’s evolution.
Mr. Villalobos said Mr. Chávez’s efforts were part of a Venezuelan tradition of presidents trying to leave their mark by erecting new cities. Rómulo Betancourt was the force behind Ciudad Guayana, and Rafael Caldera built Ciudad Sucre on the southwestern border a decade ago to help prevent guerrilla incursions.
Mr. Chávez’s ambitious plans include a steel city near here in Bolívar State and other cities focused on oil refining, aluminum production and diamond extraction.
One Sunday in July, he began his weekly television program from a helicopter above a site near Caracas where the first of his so-called socialist cities, called Camino de los Indios, or Indian Path, is under construction. The project set off protests in Federico Quiroz, a Caracas slum from which residents will be forcibly relocated to this new city.
Ciudad Guayana remains a bastion of support for the president, its aging factories holding strategic importance for the country’s seemingly eternal quest to lessen reliance on oil exports.
Workers have been largely supportive of the changes at companies like Alcasa, an aluminum producer run by Carlos Lanz, a former Communist guerrilla and now a leading theorist on Venezuela’s efforts to allow workers to co-manage state factories.
But these experiments with socialism have not created enough economic opportunities for residents here. The housing shortage and a spate of killings in gun battles between unionized workers competing for construction jobs have raised questions about how far the commitment to a better life for Venezuela’s people extends.
“This is the most dangerous place in Venezuela for union members,” said Laurent Labrique, a director of Provea, a human rights group that is investigating more than 100 killings of unionized workers here in the last three years.
Unemployment here is estimated at nearly 14 percent, compared with the national rate of 8 percent.
Ciudad Guayana was founded in an atmosphere of optimism. Wide paved avenues and rectangular apartment blocks evoke the modernist feel of other planned cities like Brasília, built a few years earlier. Politicians in Caracas, lured by the nearby supplies of iron ore and bauxite, poured billions of dollars into building this city around steel plants and aluminum smelters.
The problems began in the early 1980s, when the federal government absorbed heavy losses at poorly managed state enterprises. By the time Mr. Chávez was elected in 1998, there was also a housing shortage that could not be solved by the high-rises built decades ago by the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana, the state holding company that controls most industry here.
A surge in land seizures ensued, with squatters empowered by Mr. Chávez’s populist statements, said Clara Irazábal, an urban planner at the University of Southern California who is from Venezuela, as shantytowns spread from San Félix, the old colonial quarter, to Puerto Ordaz, where the middle and upper classes live.
“We have no running water or asphalt for the roads, and the only electricity comes from up there,” said Niurka Muñoz, 31, a homemaker, as she pointed to a maze of wiring that illicitly siphons power off the grid into her home in Hugo Chávez Frías, a shantytown assembled from discarded wood and cinderblock that the residents named in honor of the president.
No one at state agencies has precise estimates of how many squatters there are here, though housing rights advocates say more than 10,000 new homes are needed.
The white-collar employees at Venezolana de Guayana, which manages many aspects of life in the city, say they do what they can to improve the situation. “We are trying to impose order on a difficult situation,” said Andrés Cabezas, the corporation’s vice president for territorial development, who oversees the building of new neighborhoods for squatters.
Yet even with its challenges, this city remains a magnet for those fleeing desperation elsewhere. “I dream of returning home someday,” said José Contreras , 35, one of the Waraos who live near the bus station in a camp of tents and hammocks strewn with garbage. “But this is where I’m able to find something to eat and drink.”
Source: New York Times
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