As Caracas turns 451 years old, an in the middle of a horrid hyperinflation that reaches over 13,000%, Venezuela’s capital city faces significant challenges. Beyond declining infrastructure, a symptom of the nation’s general and profound crisis, caraqueños are having a hard time enjoying and living their city.
Santiago de León de Caracas, -just Caracas, for short- is Venezuela’s most populated city, with approximately 3 million people living in the Metropolitan Area. It is the country’s epicenter: From power to entertainment, and bureaucracy to shops, everything that happens starts and ends in Caracas. The city is privileged with tropical weather year-round, and the Avila mountain that serves as a gorgeous backdrop is also all that separates the urban metropolis from peaceful, relaxing Caribbean beaches.
So, what’s wrong with Caracas? The rapid transformations that took place in the twentieth century stimulated modernity and growth, as well as social mobility. But institutions couldn’t catch up, and poverty soon rose despite the advancements. In Venezuela’s transit from rural activity to an urban, oil-based economy, Venezuelans left the fields and took to the big cities. In these, and Caracas is the prime example, a “poverty belt” was formed, and constituted the slums Venezuelans call “barrios”. These barrios are generally located on the hills and mountains that surround the valley of Caracas. They consist mostly of illegal invasions on private and public lands and have precarious architecture and services. Informality abounds. So does crime. Even in this precariousness, Caracas’ poor live significantly better than the poor in the provinces, and they’ve lived there, in the barrio, for generations. The other side of the coin are called “urbanizaciones”, urbanizations, consolidated, middle class neighborhoods that, unlike many other countries in Latin America and the world, stand not isolated from the barrios, but in close proximity to these. Both in barrios and urbanizaciones alike, an old saying keeps a strong sense of city pride, while infuriating Venezuelans from other cities and towns: “Caracas es Caracas y lo demás es monte y culebra”, Caracas is Caracas and the rest is just woods and snakes. Naturally, it’s not true, but it serves to illustrate the pride that the inhabitants of Caracas take in being number one, even if that number one is also in violent deaths and crime.
Caracas is lacking in public spaces and an invisible wall separates East from West, although there are both barrios and urbanizaciones in the east and in the west. Crime has crippled civic activity, as people attempt to hide in private spaces. Talking on the phone in the streets? Driving with the windows down? Nearly impossible, proceed at your own risk. By sundown, Latin America’s once most promising modern city turns into a ghost town as Caracas takes the dubious distinction of being the second most dangerous city in the world, with a murder rate of 111.33 per 100,000 inhabitants.
In 33 minutes, we explore the different opportunities for reimagining Caracas as a city for encounter with the other, a city for life, fulfillment and opportunity. Beyond its problems, there is opportunity for Caracas: Unlike other societies, Venezuela does not face significant ethnic or racial divides, providing a natural opportunity for this encounter. The few spaces that the city has to offer show a democratizing force and potential. A few examples emerge: The Avila mountain, a national park since the 1950’s, has several trekking and hiking trails where social and class distinctions seem to disappear. The baseball stadium is another prime example. Unlike most of Latin America, Venezuela’s national sport is not soccer, but baseball, joining other Latin American Caribbean nations such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, eastern Mexico and northern Colombia. In University Stadium, caraqueños’ can seat in cheap and not-so-cheap seats, but the only distinction that matters is the team name on your shirt. And because baseball is different from soccer, where violent outbursts are common and fans sit in different bleachers, according to their team, people here sit side by side with their sports rivals, all in good fun. The days after big baseball games often follows a clear path: if your team lost, get ready for some ribbing and have your comebacks ready. It doesn’t matter if you’re the boss or the janitor.
I believe there is ample opportunity for reimagining Caracas. Venezuelans carry solidarity and humor in their veins, we are a united people beyond our social and political differences.
We heard from five caraqueños: The student activist, who lives way out west, the one who came back, who lives on the other side of town, the two that left, one now living in Mexico and the other in New York, and the expert, the only one who got to see with her own eyes the former splendor of the city.
For the rest of them, of us, there’s a disconnect: it’s not the city our parents knew.
I must confess that at first I expected a wider-range imagination in this reimagining Caracas exercise. I was expecting to hear about all the parks the city needs and the new and shiny spaces that would make Caracas more democratic, more livable, just a nicer city.
But in order for caraqueños to let their imaginations run wild, they have to be able to re-imagine the basics: «I WANT TO BE ABLE TO WALK!» is almost a scream yelled out in unison. Yes, caraqueños imagine, but it’s not about the sparkle, it’s about the struggle for a city free from an all-encompassing FEAR, a city for LIFE, and not for death, for peace, and not for crime, for being out, instead of hidden in. We want to walk, but we don’t want to walk divided, alone. We want to walk together toward the future.
Caracas will fly only when it can once again walk, when caraqueños of all classes can soar in the city they love: the city of the green Ávila, of the yellow Araguaney trees, of the constant chirping of tropical birds and ubiquitous night sounds of little frogs and crickets. The city of solidarity, of humor and loud laughs. The city of friends, of family, of love.
I’m sure better days are ahead for Caracas, and until then, we shall all keep in our minds, in our imagination, the city we dream of, the one we know we can make possible. In reimagining Caracas, we, the caraqueños, also vow to rebuild it.
Re-Imagining Caracas is a project for the Civic Imaginaries in the Urban Commons class at The New School. I want to thank Eduardo Staszowski and Nidhi Srinivas for their great input and ideas, and for all the amazing content we read and discussed in class. I also want to thank my classmates, who contributed a lot to this project.
Huge thanks to Daniel Tortoledo, not only for the interview, but also for helping me through what was, for me at least, a pretty hard editing process.
And thanks to Carmen, María Estela, Carlos and Augusto for their time and great conversations.