Venezuela makes plans to fight against nature

ONCE CONSIDERED the lucky exception in a continent plagued by civil war, natural disasters and economic collapse, Venezuelans have grown accustomed in the past 10 years to an almost constant state of crisis.

In February 1989, hundreds were killed when the army and the national guard were used on rioters protesting against the gap between wages and prices. There followed two coup attempts, the impeachment of a corrupt president and a banking crisis.

But nothing had prepared them for the unimaginable destruction caused by the avalanches of mud and rocks that poured down the steep slopes of the Avila on the night of 15 and 16 December. In the words of historian Jesus Sanoja, "This has been, without a doubt, our greatest tragedy".

The 6,000ft Mt Avila is the symbol of Caracas. It separates the capital, at an altitude of just under 3,000ft, from the beaches of what Venezuelans call the litoral central, or central coast. Towards its western end, a four-lane highway links the city with the main international airport of Maiquetia, on the coast, and La Guaira, one of the country's three principal ports.

The litoral - a sliver of coast between the mountain and the sea - was recently given administrative autonomy from the city of Caracas as the new state of Vargas. Until last week, it was linked in the minds of caraquenos with the traditional weekend visit to the beach.

On the night of the catastrophe, the normally benign Avila, to which many attribute mystical properties of a living being, became the source of death on a scale which may never be fully calculated. The beaches and holiday homes were turned into a giant cemetery.

"With a heavy heart," said General Raul Salazar, the defence minister, "I have to say that in several parts of the state of Vargas between 15,000 and 20,000 people are buried under eight or 10 metres of mud and rocks."

With inescapable irony, the disaster struck only hours after the country had voted overwhelmingly to accept a new constitution, intended to sweep away the corruption and mismanagement of the past and usher in the "Fifth Republic". But instead of celebrating a new beginning, Venezuela is now reeling from a devastating economic and psychological blow. What ended up being swept away were the lives, the homes and businesses of tens of thousands of people.

The election campaign had polarised the country along class lines. President Hugo Chavez, a former paratroop colonel, remains hugely popular among the 80 per cent of Venezuelans whom two decades of economic decline have plunged into poverty, but he has alienated the middle and upper classes, the private sector, the intelligentsia and large parts of the church hierarchy.

As the rains that would bring disaster lashed the country on the day of the vote, the president quoted the hero of South American independence, Simon Bolivar, who allegedly said: "If nature opposes us, then we will fight against her." It was a phrase that would come back to haunt Mr Chavez.

Similarly, in a sermon last week, the Archbishop of Caracas, Ignacio Velasco, declared: "We suffer from the sin of pride. We believe we are capable of everything, and nature responds by showing us that we do not have all the power." The archbishop has since stressed that he did not intend to suggest that God would exact revenge on the chavistas. But when the current mood of national unity subsides, the argument as to whose side the Almighty is on seems bound to resume.

The Health Minister, Gilberto Rodriguez Ochoa, head of the National Emergency Commission, stirred no less controversy when he said the country must take advantage of the tragedy. The homeless should be moved "to where the natural conditions permit them to live better," he said. The aim is to redistribute the population away from the crowded coast to the almost uninhabited interior. This plan, already under discussion before the flood, is now to be accelerated. The proposal is controversial, although no one doubts that drastic measures are required.