Right to the Doorstep

by Alexandra Suich:

Eduardo Vegas, director of marketing and sales for Notitarde, a newspaper in the Venezuelan industrial capital of Valencia, stoically paged through the newspaper in the center of the newsroom as he read off the day’s headlines in a solemn tone. “Triple Homicide.” On the same page, “Nine Homicides in Last 48 Hours.” On the next, “Murdered Journalist in Maracay.”

While there is always enough crime in Venezuela to fill the pages of Vegas’ daily newspaper, murders can hardly be considered “news” for most Venezuelans. Almost every Venezuelan knows someone who has been touched by crime, and fear of crime dictates patterns of daily life. When Vegas showed off the large basement room where Notitarde is printed and went on to talk about the paper’s distribution, he scoffed when the question of subscriptions was raised. “Subscriptions are hard,” he explained of Notitarde, which has a circulation of 100,000. “People don’t like you knocking on their door—even if you are delivering a newspaper—because of security reasons.”

In 2005, the United Nations identified Venezuela as the crime capital of the world, with the highest per capita rate of gun-related deaths each year. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), crime has more than doubled since President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998. Murders are now the leading cause of death for adult males in Venezuela and the third leading cause of death overall. These soaring crime statistics mean that Venezuela now has more murders per year than its neighbor, Colombia, which has been battling to suppress armed militias for decades.

Criminal Rhetoric

In many ways, Venezuela’s high crime rate tells a classic story: that of the marriage between poverty and crime. While Chávez purports to have dramatically reduced poverty during his presidency and has initiated countless social projects and reforms for the poor, there is skepticism about whether Venezuela and its economically marginalized citizens have truly experienced wide-scale improvement. In fact, in 2005, the National Statistics Institute, overseen by the Venezuelan government, estimated that poverty hovered at 53 percent, compared to 43 percent in 1999 when Chávez took office. This puts the Venezuelan experience in line with international trends that correlate high levels of poverty with high levels of crime. Yet, at the same time, Venezuela’s security situation defies convention. It cannot be explained by poverty alone, as political ideology and rhetoric have also played roles in promoting violence. Chávez’s fiery speeches about the arrogance of the United States are perhaps the best-known example of his tendency to speak about provocation and struggle, but he speaks about these same things when addressing domestic issues as well. His frequent mention of class struggle invokes a vocabulary that encourages unrest among the poor.

Chávez, from a poor background himself, has built his political career on a platform of empowering Venezuela’s lower classes by fighting poverty. Yet, Chávez sees the fight against poverty as exactly that—a fight. Chávez once famously declared when visiting a prison, that he understood the victimization and hardship the convicts had faced in providing for themselves. “If I didn’t have anything to eat,” he sympathized, “I would also steal.”

Opponents of Chávez cite this speech as an example of how Chávez’s policies have become misguided. “It’s not ‘if I were poor and hungry,’ I would work,” Alessandra Roveri, a native of Valencia, pointed out. “People now feel that they are allowed to steal.” When stealing is described as an equally appropriate course of action as gainful employment, it becomes hard for those who have anything worth stealing to survive unharmed.

After all, the poor are also victims— and, in fact, more frequent victims—of crime. When Notitarde’s Vegas described crime in Venezuela, he was quick to point out this reality. He recollected that someone had murdered a young boy just a day before simply in order to steal his shoes. The police, though known for their corruption and afterhours vigilante justice, are regardless difficult to spot in Venezuela’s poorer areas. While the wealthy municipality of Chacao in Caracas had 1,228 policemen per 100,000 inhabitants in 2005, the poor municipality of Libertador had only 63 policemen per 100,000 residents. Chávez may be focusing on combating economic inequality, but by failing to strengthen police presence and conduct in poor areas, economically marginalized Venezuelans remain the most vulnerable.

In this way, Chávez seems to defy international trends. While most leaders propel their country into lawlessness by denying poverty and allowing economic inequality to fester, Chávez has taken the opposite approach, highlighting the need for redistribution and economic revolution. But it is Chávez’s exclusive focus on poverty and his encouraging citizens to “fight” against it that have placed wealthy and poor Venezuelans alike in danger. According to Chávez, everyone is entitled to basic necessities, like shoes, and their right to fight for them transcends the rule of law.

Looking the Other Way

While crime has soared because of Chávez’s condemnation of income inequality, it has remained high because of his silence regarding crime. In multiple censuses, Venezuelans have overwhelmingly cited crime as their number one concern. Yet the Venezuelan government has responded to the crime situation with none of the same bravado as it has used to talk about the injustice faced by the poor. Roberto Burgos, a security advisor in Caracas, feels, “The president’s preoccupation with this [crime] problem has been nothing or very little.” According to Burgos, “President Chávez never bothered himself to comment in one of his many media channels about programs working against this calamity or to say ‘Señores of the Police, something must be done to combat the delinquents.’ Instead, he says things like, ‘Those that rob for necessity are doing right.’ This type of commentary from the president augments the delinquency because [criminals] feel supported by the state.”

In mid-June, interior minister Pedro Carreño denied the need for the governmental action that Venezuelans like Burgos have been craving. Carreño insisted that crime rates are decreasing but would not release any statistics to support the claim. He also accused Chávez’s detractors—including the domestic opposition and the United States— of having exaggerated crime to destabilize Chávez’s regime. Crime, according to Chávez’s administration, is an invented reality, not a plague ravaging all classes and regions of the country.

While official denial of the crime rate has become party line, the Venezuelan government has taken a few small steps. In April, the first of three blimps was launched to patrol Caracas from the sky. Built by a South Korean firm for $465,000, the blimp floats above Caracas and transmits images back to a central command post where operates can watch out for crimes. While some feel that the purchase of the blimps is a necessary move toward greater security, others have been critical, questioning the potential to patrol crowded and dark areas where most crime occurs.

Of even greater significance, Chávez has recently announced his intention to nationalize the police force. Currently, Venezuelan states control the structure of their own police forces, but Chávez intends to put all police under central control and build up local community groups to help combat crime. While a central and cohesive strategy to curb crime is undoubtedly useful, many are not sure whether this shift toward centralization is in fact a move toward progress or authoritarianism. Chávez has not indicated how he plans to reform the conduct of the police, notorious for excessive violence and corruption.

Ironically, Chávez’s encouragement of the “fight” against poverty might be his undoing because he refuses to address or even acknowledge its harmful consequences. After all, Venezuela’s high crime rate will not be disguised—or resolved—by vague allusions to progress or by high-flying blimps. Change will only come through the commitment of Venezuela’s leaders and through a new interpretation of just how this “fight” for progress should take place.

The Venezuelan government must come to understand that the crime situation is going to be a main factor in making Venezuela “Everyone’s Country,” as Chávez’s ubiquitous promotional posters advertise. After all, Venezuela is certainly not his people’s country, despite Chávez’s pretensions, if people cannot leave their homes at night or get newspapers delivered to their door.