Late one afternoon in a small, sun-scorched plaza near the heart of a Caracas barrio, a young boy squatted at the foot of a bench, shining a man's shoes. The boy, working quickly, accidentally smudged black shoe polish on the man's white sock. The man saw the error and began to shout. He jumped up and hit the boy across the face, then picked up his wooden shoeshine kit and smashed it against the pavement, breaking it into a dozen pieces.
As the boy stood frozen, another man, crossing the plaza, ran to his aid. Shielding him from his angry customer, he took the boy home -- to a scene in many ways sadder than that of the plaza.
The boy, who said he was 10 years old, lived high in the hills in a brick and tin shack with a dirt floor. His father had long since disappeared. Seven younger brothers and sisters were home with his mother, who was in bed, ill.
"The boy was trying to earn money for the whole family," said the Rev. Efren Hernandez, pastor of the Baptist church in the area and the man who had come to the boy's rescue. "He had to do it because his family had to eat, but he was so young, so defenseless.And there are so many others like him -- I had to do something."
Down the street from the same plaza in a small building of brown chipped stucco, Mr. Hernandez has begun a sort of trade union for children. A six-foot sign, painted blue and orange and nailed to the front of the building, says: Society for the Protection of Shoeshine Boys: A New Way to Teach the Children of the Street.
"You must understand these children work in the streets because they have to eat," says Mr. Hernandez, as he strolls past a half dozen young boys applying a fresh coat of paint to the walls of the society's hallways.
"The life they live is dangerous and terrible. They are in the streets with the prostitutes and the thieves and the homosexuals and drug traffickers."
Figures are difficult to come by, but it's estimated there are at least 50, 000 children who work shining shoes in the streets of Caracas. All day and late into the night they are out, dressed in dirty T-shirts and jeans, working in the plazas and on street corners. Most are boys between eight and 14, but some start work as young as five. Venezuelans tell stories of Fagin-like characters who work the barrios enticing bands of boys -- through drugs or force -- to work for them, shining shoes, begging, stealing.
The National Institute of Minors, a children's welfare agency, says there are as many as 700,000 abandoned children in Venezuela -- as many as 400,000 in Caracas alone. Many of them sleep in the street, but most have at least a brick shack to go home to, even if no one is there.
"The people leave the countryside to come to the big city to have a better life," says Hernandez, "but here they find many problems -- no place to live, to work. The family breaks apart. The men have many mistresses. The mistresses have many children and, since the mothers must go out and work in the day and the night, the children are alone. There is no one to tell them to go to school -- sometimes the schools are no good anyway. There is no one to give them food; they are abandoned."
This year Venezuela is expected to get as much as $15 billion in oil revenues , but even the government concedes at least 80 percent of the population is not benefiting at all from such oil wealth. In Caracas, nearly 40 percent of the population live in dismal shantytowns in the hills, a good portion of them children.
Dr. Homero Alverez Perera, president of the Minors Institute, says: "Everyone says build more schools, more institutions, but these children need to know more than to read or write, they need caring, they need to be taught how to live.
"All this oil money came into our country so fast, we lost our way of life," he says. "We fell in love with the United States and with consumerism. Now, who is to tell a poor man from the country he should not buy a television, but he should take care of his children?"
The Rev. Mr. Hernandez has little patience for government argument. "I went to the government and they told me they had no money; I went to the big business and they thought I was a communist because I wanted to help poor people. They do not realize these children have good in them and they will be lost."
In his small office, Pastor Hernandez has begun a file of more than 500 children, with photos, addresses, places they usually work. He has gathered a group of 35 doctors, teachers, and students who volunteer to provide the children with medical care and reading lessons. He is trying to convince local businessmen to sponsor boys so they can leave the street and go to school. He has also started classes for mothers to teach them the importance of nutrition, education, the dangers of drugs and delinquency.
"There is all this talk about the new health of Venezuela, all the oil, the modern buildings, fancy cars," says Mr. Hernandez. "But the reality -- wait -- I will show you the reality of Venezuela."
Mr. Hernandez goes into the hall and returns with a dark-haired, dark-eyed boy in a wrinkled T-shirt, scarcely taller than the office desk. Speaking softly, the boy says his name is Ramon Garcia and that he lives up in the hills with his mother and six brothers and sisters. His father is gone. His mother works.
Asked if he goes to school, Ramon shrugs; asked if he works, he nods and points to a worn wooden shoeshine kit in the corner. "Si," he says, "limpiabota."
Ramon says he spends most of his days working in the Plaza Bolivar downtown. He says he likes his work and brings his earnings home. Then Ramon will tell you -- standing tall and proud -- that he is seven years old.