CARACAS, VENEZUELA — When it comes to finding a new home, flood survivor Leona Mantilla is clear about one thing: "I'm never going back to live in La Guaira," she says. "There's nothing there but a lot of rocks and many, many dead."
This Venezuelan grandmother was swept several miles downstream by a swollen river in last month's disaster. She still has no news of her adult daughter and 12-year-old granddaughter, who were with her at the time.
Housed temporarily in a multistory parking garage in the capital, Caracas, she is just one of tens of thousands now dependent on government help.
But the government is determined to turn catastrophe into opportunity. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, the authorities say, to engineer a massive and permanent shift in the population away from the crowded and vulnerable Caribbean coast into the virtually empty interior.
Large-scale relocations in other areas of the world - prompted by dam projects or overpopulation - often meet with public resistance.
The good news - from the authorities' point of view - is that, having in many cases lost even the clothes they stood up in, large numbers of families are for the first time willing to move.
According to a survey conducted by the government's social-services fund, 64 percent of flood victims from Caracas and the north-coast state of Vargas are open to the possibility.
"We have to take advantage of this tragedy," says Health Minister Gilberto Rodriguez, "to reconstruct the country and recover our lost sovereignty."
The minister, who heads the National Emergency Commission, says that populating the interior will, among other advantages, help secure the country's borders against threats that range from Colombian guerrillas, through drug traffickers to Brazilian goldminers.
At present, 40 percent of Venezuela's population of about 24 million is crammed into less than 2 percent of its territory. One result is the proliferation of unsanitary, and often dangerous slums - known as ranchos - in the capital, Caracas.
Another was the widespread flouting of good planning practice along the nearby coastline, where the bulk of last month's flood and landslide victims died.
Even before the disaster, the government of President Hugo Chvez was working on plans to develop the vast llanos, or plains, alongside the Apure and Orinoco rivers in the country's heartland.
With tens of thousands of people now living in temporary refuges or military barracks, there is both an urgent need to accelerate the plan and a receptive population willing to consider it.
According to the mayor of the central Caracas municipality of Libertador, Antonio Ledezma, some 3,500 homes will have to be demolished immediately, and their occupants rehoused elsewhere.
"We commit a kind of culpable homicide," Mr. Ledezma says, "when we allow people to continue living in high-risk areas, where the homes are built in riverbeds or on land which is unfit for construction."
By some estimates, as many as 24,000 homes in the capital should be torn down. But even the immense task of rehousing that this implies pales in significance beside the challenge facing the national government. About 200,000 people were made homeless by the disaster. The country already suffers from a huge housing deficit, the product of 20 years of economic decline.
Still, many Venezuelans are likely to resist relocation. "We know they want to move us all out of here," says Dionisio Reyes Martinez, a bricklayer from the badly hit Caracas district of San Bernardino. "But my house is still standing. And I'm not going off to some mountain somewhere. We have jobs here."
Inaugurating the first of what the government calls "development poles," in the small community of Pueblo Guri, last week, Mr. Chvez admitted that at first no one wanted to take up the offer of housing in the interior. "But after an intensive information campaign, now we have to hold people back, because so many want to make a new start in Pueblo Guri," he said.
Located near the world's second-biggest hydroelectric dam, the new town will initially receive 1,500 flood victims.
"We have abundant electricity here," said Clemente Scotto, head of the government's Corporacion Venezolana de Guayana (CVG), which owns the site. "And that will allow us to set up industrial carpentry and an iron workshop, so they can produce furniture."
The CVG also plans to employ the new arrivals in the assembly of electric cookers. Inevitably, however, a large proportion of the jobs in the predominantly agricultural interior will be in farming. It remains to be seen whether the capital's taxi drivers and street vendors can be persuaded to go back to the land.
Some experts question the whole strategy, arguing that Latin American history is littered with failed projects to move urban populations into sparsely inhabited hinterlands. Many of those who do agree to go will eventually return, they suggest.
"And a large part of that labor force will be needed to reconstruct the state [of Vargas]," says urban-planning specialist Vicente Avella. "We believe that if 200,000 jobs were lost, that same number - or even twice that - can be created."
So far, however, Chvez is getting high marks for his handling of the crisis. A poll last week showed that 86 percent of people in Caracas regarded it as "good" or "very good."
The president, a former paratroop colonel who staged a failed coup in 1992, has scarcely been out of camouflage fatigues and his trademark red beret since the disaster, and his image as a "tough guy" has undoubtedly been enhanced. A new Constitution, drafted by an assembly almost entirely loyal to the president, came into effect last Thursday, giving him expanded powers and ushering in what he terms "the fifth republic."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society