Venezuelans look to past, present, future

BY PJ HELLER | CARACAS, Venezuela | January 3, 2000


CARACAS, Venezuela (Jan. 3, 2000) -- With the dawning of the year 2000, tens

of thousands of Venezuelans began looking to the future -- to rebuild their

homes and their shattered lives in the wake of massive flooding and

mudslides -- and to the past to try to determine how such a disaster could

have occurred.

At the same time, they are also considering the present and the changes

they see as their country tried copes with what officials have called the

worst natural disaster ever to hit Venezuela.

"Solidarity" was the word heard most often as civilians, the military, the

government, relief groups, faith-based organizations and others began

making what appeared to be the first concerted efforts at working together.

"I believe the emergency has given us solidarity, not only the churches

but the entire country," said the Rev. Ramon Castillo, pastor of Union

Evangelical Pentecostal Church in Caracas.

Massive amounts of international aid, already in the tens of millions of

dollars, have poured into the country. Added to emergency relief funds

provided by Venezuela itself, the aid response already totals well over $1

billion.

Faith-based groups, are continuing to assess the situation, pledging

assistance, and seeking donations to assist in the relief effort.

They are also attempting to mount a coordinated effort to provide relief

to those left homeless by the mid-December storms. More than 400,000 people

were left homeless, according to the government, when raging water and tons

of mud and rock cascaded down the mountainsides burying entire villages.

In some areas, what once were two-story homes are now one story, with the

first level completely covered by mud and debris.

Upwards of 30,000 people were killed, officials estimated, although they

say the exact number may never be known. The latest reported figure from

the government said the death count had climbed to an estimated 50,000

people.

Two weeks after the disaster, the Venezuelan military continues to manage

the humanitarian aid effort. A coordinated effort by faith-based groups is

likely to occur as the military presence diminishes, said Don Tatlock,

who was in Venezuela last week assessing the situation for Church World

Service.

"Hopefully they (church groups) will be given an opportunity to step in

within the next few weeks," Tatlock said.

Some faith-based groups said they are already working on their own to provide

assistance and shelter to the survivors.

While portions of the country remain covered with up to 25 feet of mud and

rock, the storm also uncovered some of the long-simmering problems in the

country of poverty and political corruption, noted several government

officials.

"This tragedy has revealed a social disaster and a political disaster,"

said Pablo Medina, a high-ranking official with the National Constituent

Assembly. "The poverty floated to the top.

"It was a tragedy we have been suffering for many years but it all came out

from the rain," he said.

Medina recalled that a similar disaster occurred in the state of Vargas in

1951 (one also occurred there in 1948, according to newspaper clippings).

He said thousands were killed in the 1951 floods.

"In the ensuing 50 years, we have undergone tremendous development," he

said. "This tragedy today is an accumulation of 50 years of errors."

"You have to remember that this tragedy was caused by poor planning and

political corruption," added Dr. Hernan Cortes, a Venezuelan doctor

providing medical attention to survivors in Vargas. "Thousands of

compatriots in Venezuela have died because of this corruption."

Ivan Cedeno, general secretary for the state of Vargas, one of the hardest

hit areas in the country, agreed corruption of past government

officials was largely to blame for construction being allowed in high risk

areas where damage was the greatest.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has called for an investigation into past

government practices. He has blamed both, previous governments for their

"criminal irresponsibility" as well as present-day Venezuelans.

"We are all guilty," he said.

Cortes and others gave Chavez high marks for his handling of the disaster

and for government plans to relocate affected families to other safer

locations, including locations in some of the country's other regions.

Venezuela is made up of 22 states and the federal district of Caracas.

"President Chavez appears very strong about not allowing this to happen

again," said Cortes, who works for IPAS-ME, providing medical care for

educators working for the Ministry of Education.

Chavez apparently also blocked attempts by the military to take over in the

state of Vargas.

"The defense minister tried to militarize this area," added Medina, who also

suggested a motive for the takeover.

"Behind great tragedy, people make great fortunes by trying to take

advantage of it," he said. "The defense minister's plan was to militarize

the whole state of Vargas and end civil power and create a military power."

Ultimately, he said, Chavez supported the idea of non-military rule.

"Our idea is to rebuild the area and let the people live here," Medina said.

Reconstruction efforts could take up to 10 years, according to one

government official. Complicating efforts is the fact that most of the

country's infrastructure was already in poor condition before the floods

hit.

Two bridges in the town of Barquisimeto that were damaged by flooding last

May, for example, still remain impassable with no work being done on

repairs.

In La Guaira in the state of Vargas, devastated by the December floods,

cleanup appears to be moving slowly. Cargo containers at the port, tossed

into a heap and into the water, still remain there two weeks after the

storm. There is no running water and mud, rock and debris remains piled

throughout the area.

Cortes said that faith-based groups need to play a stronger role in

reaching the people and providing them with pastoral care and counseling.

"The churches should have a stronger role in reaching those people," he

said. "They need to help people with their pain, to counsel them and to

give them hope for the future."

"Right now, he explained, "they (churches) are going through a formative

process. They haven't consolidated yet."

One of the problems, he added, is that "a lot of religious groups don't

have political power."

Marlene de Laya, wife of Alfredo Laya, governor of Vargas, said she felt

faith-based groups could be a major resource in bringing about social

change throughout the country.

Posted Jan. 3, 2000


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