Caracas: 'Too many people, too much noise

It was only five minutes into dinner and already talk had turned to urban horror stories of life in Caracas. * One Venezuelan businessman had spent four hours stuck in downtown traffic in the middle of the day.

* Another had tried all day to get a call through to the other side of town on a phone line that refused to function.

* A young mother had lost her electricity for two days in the same week the water had mysteriously disappeared.

"I tell you it doesn't work any more," said Bennie, an architect who has lived in Caracas for years.

"There are too many people, too much noise, too much garbage, too much everything. Nothing works and it is all craziness. Complete craziness."

Such outbursts are not uncommon in this booming oil-rich capital of the northernmost country of South America. Sprawling in a long, narrow valley of the coastal Andes, Caracas used to be called the "city of red roofs and eternal spring."

But as oil prices soared (Venezuela is one of the founder of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and thousands of rural peasants and immigrants flocked here seeking the good life, the city, in many wasy, began to crumble.

Today, 40 percent of he city's residents are without basic services such as water or electricity. Even those fortunate enought to have such services are plagued with near-constant blackouts, brownouts, and shortages.

An explosion in the pumping station earlier this year left nearly the entire city without wate for two weeks. And every day the city's residents combat garbage and trash-littered streets clogged with traffic, in a city that now has th population density of Tokyo, more cars than New York City at rush hour, and pollution and noise levels that rival the worst in the world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a growing number of caraquenos -- as the city's residents are called -- have recently begun to lose faith in their city. Normally, they are an exuberant and optimistic lot.

Now, too, as problems mount, there are signs that even official optimism has begun to wane. for the first time the government has indicated it fears the only solution to Caracas might be simply to give up -- pack the bags and move the capital elsewhere -- possibly to a brand-new city modeled after Brasilia, the built-from-scratch, experimental capital of Brazil.

"When you first mention the idea of moving the capital, everybody thinks it's outrageous," says Fernando Travieso, a professor at the developmental studies branch of the Central University here.

"But when you start to look at the problems facing Caracas, the idea begins to make sense."

At the request of the government, Mr. Travieso headed up the first study of Caraca's future, specifically the feasibility of moving or building a new capital in the interior. The study was reviewed by the government and included in the Sixth National Plan last January.

Until then consultants are reluctant to recommend specific solutions, but are emphatic about the urgency of problems confronting Caracas, which many planners say has deteriorated over the past five years more than any other Latin-American city.

"This city used to be beautiful," said Mr. Travieso, who has lived here all his life.

"But today it is all gone. There are no green spaces; there is only concrete and cars and pollution. None of us realized what we were getting into. But now we know. In Caracas we have created a monster."

Urban woes caused by density are nothing new to Latin-Americans cities, but in Caracas, the problem is worsened by the city's topography. Situated in a 15 -mile long valley, 900 meters above sea level, and surrounded by steep mountains , Caracas, says Mr. Travieso, is "essentially a long, thin bowl that has filled up."

Rapidly constructed high-rise concrete apartment buildings, where elevators are often stalled for days and one-bedroom apartments rent for $1,000 a month, have long since replaced the red-tiled roofs on the city's skyline.

Many who have come to Caracas seeking a better life have found employment hard to find and, unable to afford the astronomical housing costs, have settled into the endless rows of brick and cardboard shack barios that clutter the hillsides ringing the city. There they live without water, electricity, schools , hospitals, and transportation, waiting for things to improve.

But there is no relief in sight. Studies show by the year 2000, the city's population will have nearly doubled to close to 7 million. At that point, planners say -- despite a new subway system under construction here "traffic jams will be permanent," and scarcity will have driven land prices so high teh cost of building any new facilities to improve services woudld be impossible to pay.

Facing such problems, many in the government now are convinced that moving the capital is the only answer. But where to is another matter.

There has been some discussion of possible moves to sites along the enormous Orinoco River, 500 miles into the interior, where water and land are plentiful and development is beginning on the country's rich heavy oil belt.

Not everyone, of course, is in favor of building a new capital. Planners themselves point out that Brasilia has done little to solve the problems of the old Brazilian capital of Rio de Janeiro.

Others, such as city councilor Alvera Paez Pumor, argue against "destroying" 400 years of history with Caracas as the capital and say efforts should be made to improve the city rather than abandon it.

Still, whether difficulties here can be overcome is open to question. State Planning Minister Ricardo Martinez warns that things have gotten so bad here that despite the country's new wealth it is now "almost impossible to improve services -- from water supplies to garbage collection."

And while many insist it would be hard to get Caraquenos to move any place "hot and dreary" in the interior, a public-opinion poll two years ago found 53 percent of city residents didn't like Caracas at all and would move someplace else if they could.

Meanwhile, as planners warn of a collapse of necessary services, and daily frustrations continue unabated, a regional governor describes the city -- in poetic if exasperated terms -- as "un potro encabritado sin monta" -- an angry horse without a rider.

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