Caracas fights for facelift to woo tourists, residents

Caracas does not figure large on the map for the thousands of tourists who flock to South America every year lured by the promise of ancient civilizations, mysterious jungles and pulsating rhythms.

Even for residents of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas - once a popular home-from-home for waves of immigrants drawn by its quality of life - is today synonymous with insecurity and traffic nightmares.

Now a slew of new initiatives is aiming to give the city a more human face: more parks and green spaces, wider pavements, the renovation of the historic city center, more police patrols and more open-air cultural events.

"I think people are prepared to fight more now for their open spaces than they did before," said Cheo Carvajal, author of the "Caracas By Foot" column in a Venezuelan daily and a leading advocate for the rights of pedestrians and cyclists.

"There must be a pressure from below from citizens demanding their rights, and from above with concrete policies to recover such spaces."

But at night, when Caracas, a city of four million residents, turns into a ghost town because of fears of robbery and violence, when traffic jams can last for hours and onlookers seek out the bright lights of the shopping malls, it is apparent there is still much to be done.

"We need more public open spaces, and people have to get over their fear and visit these public places and take care of them, instead of remaining behind closed doors at home," said young mother Patricia Medina.

About 14,000 people were murdered in Venezuela in 2010, which has a homicide rate of 48 in every 100,000 - a near-record in Latin America. According to non-governmental organizations the rate in Caracas is as high as 100 murders for every 100,000 residents.

- Reclaim a city -

And here in oil-rich Venezuela, where gas is the cheapest in the world at just pennies for a liter, about five million vehicle journeys happen every day - 24 percent in private cars - clogging the city streets.

"We can't reclaim a city by insisting that it is dangerous. Caracas has potential, and we have to take risks to highlight this. The more that people take back the streets, the safer they will be," Carvajal added.

One resident Sofia Bautista is helping to lead the way.

"For several months I have been doing yoga in the park. It's the perfect place because Caracas has such rich nature. But even doing this in a group you are still a little bit afraid because of the stories you hear about robberies and attacks," she said.

The city's historic center is also one of its least safe places, where the dirt, insecurity and lack of pedestrian walkways need to be tackled.

"We are going to transform Caracas into a much nicer city," pledged Jorge Rodriguez, mayor of the Libertador district, the most heavily populated in the capital. "Caracas will win a place on the tourist routes," he vowed.

For the July celebrations of the bicentennial of the nation's independence from its former Spanish rulers, the city center was spruced up, historic buildings were renovated and a host of cultural events have been organized to breath fresh life into streets.

But sharp, and apparently irreconcilable differences between allies of firebrand President Hugo Chavez and several opposition mayors have not helped forge a common political will.

Architect Daniel Fernandez Shaw, who has taken part in several urban projects in Caracas for the past 40 years, said "compared to other cities like Quito or Bogota we have not seen much planning" in the Venezuelan capital.

Above all, Shaw said, the transformation of the city needs to come from improving the conditions in working class districts, which would need an investment of some 320 billion euros ($459 billion), in a nation where social inequality remains huge.

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