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As Caracas boils, its elite dodges scalds

All over Venezuela's violence-torn capital, the affluent are stocking up, laying emergency plans and counting their weapons.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Normally poorly attended, a residents association meeting last month in the wealthy Altamira district was packed with a crowd of anxious people.

The mood was somber, as speakers searched for answers to their worst fears. Would there be tanks coming up the street? asked one woman. Was it true that public hospitals were stocking up on body bags?

There was only one subject on the agenda: how to defend their homes.

[Times photo: David Adams]
Ilsi Maestre, left, who heads the neighbors association in Metropolitano, talks recently with Mirihana Cirkovic, president of a residents association in neighboring Terrazas del Avila.

"We are sitting on a time bomb and someone already lit the fuse," said Alberto Benito, 46, a retired Army captain.

"It could detonate at any moment."

A bitter political battle has heightened social tensions across Venezuela. Opposition forces are demanding the resignation of left-wing President Hugo Chavez, accusing him of trying to impose a Cuban-style communist dictatorship.

Fearful that their homes -- and their lives -- will come under attack from angry Chavista hordes in the city's sprawling slums, condo residents all over the capital are drawing up contingency plans.

They're stocking up on canned food, bottled water, flashlights, batteries and first aid supplies.

They're also preparing coded radio communications and escape routes, and making inventories of personal weapons, including revolvers, shotguns and grenades.

"We have to be ready for the worst. If there's no food, people are going to go looking for it," said Benito, a former St. Pete Beach resident who moved back to his native Venezuela five years ago.

The condo war plans may seem paranoid, but experts worry that violence is inevitable if the country's political crisis remains unresolved.

With civilians armed on both sides, one diplomat described the capital as a parched field waiting for a spark.

"We are on the edge of anarchy," said a former defense minister, retired Gen. Fernando Ochoa Antich.

Venezuelans still have painful memories of urban violence -- dubbed the "Caracazo" -- that rocked the capital in 1989. Hundreds died in looting after the government announced a series of austerity measures.

The anxiety of the city's wealthier residents is part political, part urban reality. A city of 3-million, Caracas is crammed into a narrow valley with middle class high-rises and upscale single-family homes sandwiched between slums to the east and west.

In some cases, the wealthier areas rub shoulders with commercial districts where shops were sacked by Chavista mobs, some carrying guns, during a failed opposition attempt to oust the president in April. About 20 people were killed in the looting.

Since then the government has played on fears of renewed upheaval as a warning to its enemies.

"There's no other way than the revolution . . . peacefully and in democracy, or by more stormy paths of violence," Chavez said in a recent national broadcast.

A former paratroop commander who led a failed military coup of his own in 1992, Chavez seems unconcerned by the social and political costs of his so-called Bolivarian revolution, named after the country's independence hero, Simon Bolivar.

"Chavez only thinks in war terms," said Alberto Garrido, the country's foremost political consultant. "For Chavez, politics is the extension of war."

Government critics accuse Chavez of arming his followers, organized in barrio committees known as "Bolivarian Circles." The government admits some Bolivarians are armed, but denies any state policy to distribute weapons. However, the military has in recent months trained a force of an estimated 1,000 reservists, allegedly handpicked from the most radical Chavista ranks.

Local officials say the country's four opposition-run television stations have stoked middle-class fears. Chavez recently dubbed the TV station owners the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

"They are fomenting a psychotic dissociation from reality," said Libertador Mayor Freddy Bernal, who heads the largest municipal district in the capital. "The level of hatred for us is so great that they have lost all reason."

A former police officer, Bernal is one of the most feared pro-Chavez leaders. In an interview, he accused the opposition of using subliminal messages on TV -- including cartoons about Casper the friendly ghost -- to foment hatred and violence.

The government had instructed its supporters to refrain from violence.

"Why would we encourage it?" Bernal asked. "That sort of thing could only hurt us."

But he admitted there were radical left-wingers who want the government to take a harsher line with the opposition.

"After the April coup, Chavez returned to the palace with a crucifix in his hand, but many of us thought a gun would have been better," said Carlos Perdomo, president of the hard-line Bolivarian Mayors' Association. "The government should have imprisoned people. And there are those who say shooting four or five wouldn't have been a bad idea."

Opposition protest marches are routinely attacked with a hail of rocks and bottles, as well as gunfire, by pro-Chavez forces, who act with seeming impunity. Police and soldiers either make little effort to intervene, or are slow to do so.

One person was killed and 28 injured -- 15 by gunshots -- after Chavez supporters, backed by police, attacked a peaceful opposition march Jan. 20 about 10 miles outside the capital.

In another demonstration last month, two government supporters were shot and killed. It remains unclear who fired on them.

Despite the gunfire, opposition protesters show little sign of fear.

At 8 every night, the city's condominiums erupt in whistling and pot-banging, the ritual sound of antigovernment protest. Government supporters reply with thunderous homemade firecrackers, known as "bin Ladens."

Street protests continue almost daily, attracting tens of thousands. Some have taken to wearing bulletproof vests to rallies.

As the violence escalates, more and more Venezuelans are arming themselves. Caracas gun shops report increased sales, with shotguns being the weapon of choice.

The disturbances in April prompted some condo associations to re-evaluate their security.

"It was a night of terror," said Mirihana Cirkovic, president of a residents association in Terrazas del Avila, a gated community of 3,500 families in 115 high-rises at the eastern end of the city.

The neatly landscaped streets of Terrazas del Avila are in sharp contrast to the tightly packed ramshackle homes of the barrio of Petare, a pro-Chavez stronghold barely a stone's throw away on the other side of a major highway.

Barricades were erected at the entrance to Terrazas del Avila, and rolls of razor-edged concertina wire placed on the lawn around the fortresslike guardhouse.

Contingency plans also include simple things like checking all fire extinguishers and stocking a first aid clinic. In the event of attack, residents are instructed to disable all elevators and to stay indoors and out of sight.

Coordinators elected by residents in each building are equipped with radios. Each building has its own code.

But Cirkovic, a 56-year-old sociologist, was horrified last December when, in response to rumor of an imminent Chavista attack, about 20 residents showed up at the entrance carrying guns.

"They had Uzis (submachine guns) and grenades," she said. "I told them to go home and put their guns away. They had no authorization from the association."

But a few days later, on Dec. 16, matters got worse.

That day the opposition announced an afternoon of anti-Chavez road blocks throughout the city as a show of strength. Residents from Terrazas del Avila blocked the highway separating them from Petare.

Armed men appeared on both sides of the road, and gunfire was exchanged. The resulting standoff lasted five hours.

"There was total confusion and chaos," Cirkovic said. "There were unarmed people caught in the cross fire. It's amazing there weren't more people hurt."

Residents in Petare say bullets wounded four people, including an 8-year-old girl, in the arms and legs. There were no injuries on the other side.

Police detained several residents from Terrazas del Avila for questioning.

"It was very difficult for me," Cirkovic said. "Everyone was accusing us of being killers."

Cirkovic took matters into her own hands. She arranged to meet with residents in Petare to try to defuse the tensions.

"We were so happy to see her," said Ilsi Maestre, 35, a prosecutor who heads the neighbors association in Metropolitano, the suburb of Petare closest to the road. "It's the first time in 20 years we had any contact like this with our neighbors."

Cirkovic is a shining example of the kind of social mobility that has distinguished Venezuela from other Latin American countries. Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, she emigrated to Venezuela as a girl. Her four children are all professionals. One recently graduated with a master's in business administration from Cambridge University in England. Two others live in the United States.

Cirkovic is a sharp critic of the country's elite.

"The middle class in this country is too busy navel gazing to attend to our country's real social problems," she said.

A former health worker, she spent 10 years working in Petare for the municipality. In June she decided to run for president of the Terrazas del Avila residents association.

"It's not easy being president over there," she said. "I do it because I want them to change the way they perceive society."

While she voted for Chavez in the 1998 elections, she was quickly disappointed by his aggressive language of class hatred.

"He is using the poor to satisfy his ambition for power," she said.

After decades of corrupt democratic rule by the country's traditional political parties, Chavez was swept to power on the back of a popular movement that promised social reform through what he called a "peaceful revolution."

But left-wing economic policies and allegations of widespread government corruption, coupled with Chavez's increasing militarization of the government and close ties with Cuba, have undermined his support.

Opposition leaders called a general strike in early December to demand a referendum calling for new elections. For much of December and January the strike left commercial areas of the city shuttered and abandoned, at an economic cost of more than $50-million a day.

The strike also interrupted vital oil supplies to the U.S. at a crucial time as the White House was preparing for war. Venezuela normally supplies 1.5-million barrels of oil a day to the United States, about 13 percent of this country's crude imports.

After almost eight weeks, the strike began to fizzle late last month. With the oil flowing again -- though still far below normal levels -- Chavez claims his revolution has triumphed.

Antigovernment sentiment remains high, but critics say the opposition is too obsessed with ousting Chavez and has failed to address the country's poverty gap.

"It's stronger than the Berlin Wall," said Francisco Rivero, a philosophy professor at the private Metropolitan University, referring to the divide between the capital's rich and poor. "You can't create a viable society when you have such extremes."

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