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Chávez seeks Shangri-La with 'socialist cities'

Will Caribia be a retreat from Venezuela's wealth gap and capitalism, or an unrealistic dream?

By / April 1, 2008

Camino de los Indios, Venezuela: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is building a 'socialist city' outside Caracas, to be called 'Caribia.' Residents will have equal voices on community councils and grow crops outside their homes.

Sarah Miller Llana

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Tucked in the mountains in a patch of land called Camino de los Indios just outside Venezuela's capital, Caracas, up a treacherous dirt road that only a four-wheel-drive vehicle would dare, leftist President Hugo Chávez is building a new metropolis from scratch.

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To be called Caribia, it's the first of about a dozen "socialist cities" that is intended as a utopia of sorts, where all residents will participate in community affairs and grow crops such as carrots and coffee on patches of countryside that will surround their homes.

But to get there, you must first pass one of the swankiest shopping malls in Latin America. A Mercedez Benz SUV zooms by in a gray blur.

Like so many other facets of life in Caracas, the juxtaposition is jarring, a contradiction that both extremes of the ideological spectrum here grapple with: Where does socialism fit into this oil-rich nation where the rich-poor divide is as palpable as anywhere else in Latin America? After all, that SUV that whizzed by is not an anomaly; luxury cars are all over the city, driving down highways and roads ringed by hillside slums.

Mr. Chávez has a name for it: "21st-century socialism." And nothing embodies his vision that socialism and this intensely capitalist society can sit comfortably next to each other – more than Caribia.

"Our goal is that there is no inequality, that everyone has an equal voice," says Rafael Lander, the vice minister of planning in the government's Ministry of Popular Power for Housing and Habitat, during a recent tour of the project.

It's part of the government's push for adequate housing for Venezuelans, one of several "missions" for the poor that have been financed largely with oil wealth. But this socialist city is not just any old housing project.

At a cost of 313 million bolivares (US $145 million), it will have space for up to 100,000 residents when it's finally completed in the next five years. It will boast its own radio station and newspaper. The community will be ecologically sound and self-sustaining. There will be parks, a university, and medical clinics. The most important feature, planners say, is the 10 or so community councils that will be organized around groups of housing complexes. Residents will hail from high-risk neighborhoods, says Mr. Lander.

Caribia is one of five "socialist cities" under construction throughout the country that will provide nearly 75,000 homes. Ten more cities are in the planning phase.

It would not be the first time the masses are relocated into new neighborhoods for political ends. In his 1998 book, "Seeing like a State," Yale anthropologist James Scott traces the social engineering projects of the 20th century and argues that they have failed because they ignored informal processes that create communities.

In Venezuela, some say they have little faith that this grand vision will be remembered as a success in the country's history books.

Just as "21st-century socialism" has no clear definition, neither do these new societies, says Demetrio Boersner, a left-leaning history professor at the Catholic University Andres Bello in Caracas.

When the program was announced, the local media quoted Chávez as saying: "The socialist cities are ecological cities for the family, for the people … not for consumerism."

Is socialism in this context, then, a means to help the poor, asks Mr. Boersner, or is this the launching point for the Cuban model that Chávez so extols?

Boersner says detractors complain that the idea is not based on the reality of chronic crime, food product shortages – and inadequate housing. "These 'socialist cities' of Chávez's, the same as the majority of his social projects, come from utopian ideas from his imagination," says Boersner. "It's a little pretentious to speak of 'socialist cities' when there is a shortage of housing."

The government dismisses criticism of Caribia as just another battle between pro- and anti-Chávez forces. Yet many questions remain. For starters, the project was announced nearly a year and a half ago, and not a single apartment building yet stands. And how will people get to this patch of forest up in the mountains? Planners say that one possibility is a cable car.

For now you need a regular car, but not just any old kind – precisely the type of SUV that just whizzed by, and that makes socialism here so hard to understand.

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