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Venezuela after the flood

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Carmen de Uria, Venezuela

As Fr. Felipe Colmenares makes his pastoral rounds through what remains of this seaside town, the priest is welcomed by dogs standing guard over the eerie rubble. Weeks after floods and mudslides assaulted the north coast of Venezuela, the few animals that somehow survived are still waiting in vain for their masters to return. The dogs timidly greet Colmenares as he picks his way through the hardened mud and gigantic boulders that cover what was once a bustling resort community.

As many as 5,000 people died here, roughly half of Carmen de Uria’s population. The exact numbers will never be known, as many bodies were swept out to sea or buried under a four-block-wide swath of debris that extends 300 yards into the Caribbean, its blue waters muddied by the erosion that continues with every new rain.

Colmenares is pastor in Naiguatá, three miles east, but since the December 1999 disaster, he has taken charge of three other parishes in the state of Vargas, the most devastated portion of Venezuela. In one parish, the priest broke a leg during the flooding. Another took a leave to help his family relocate after their home was destroyed. And the priest in Carmen de Uria left in a daze after watching half his flock disappear in a few minutes when a torrent of water, mud, boulders and tree trunks poured off the steep hillsides that loom above the town. The priest told NCR he was “too confused to talk” about his experiences.

Colmenares doesn’t have much to do in Carmen de Uria. The parish chapel is half gone, its floor covered with a yard of mud that may cover the bodies of some who sought refuge in the sanctuary. The town is under military control. Some suggest turning what remains into a memorial park.

Most of the survivors live in emergency shelters elsewhere. A few residents come back to dig vehicles out of the muck. When bodies are found, Colmenares prays over the remains before soldiers load the cadavers onto a helicopter for the trip out.

For the most part, Colmenares just walks, remembering people he knew here. At the ruins of one house, where relatives have pasted a photo of the disappeared Botia Juliao family in hopes they’ll turn up somewhere and be recognized, Colmenares leans against the wall and breathes heavily. “I baptized that child,” he says, pointing to the photo. He pauses, seeming as though he wants to say more, but instead can only walk off into the silence of a town that today belongs to the dead and disappeared.

Where life has begun again

In Colmenares’ home parish of Naiguatá, however, life has begun again. Not as hard hit as Carmen de Uria, Naiguatá had better community organization, which allowed neighbors to more quickly spread the alarm. Only nine people died in Naiguatá. Perched safely on a hill over the town, the Our Lady of Coromoto School served as a refuge for residents fleeing rising waters. School director Teresa Pacheco, a Sister of Charity of St. Anne, said that during the crisis she couldn’t even walk through the building -- there was no free space to set her feet.

In the weeks that followed, the school became a way station for pilgrims trekking along the shattered coastline, some leaving behind lives wrecked by the mudslides, others hiking in from the capital to search for loved ones. The coastal road, covered in places by six yards of mud and plagued by fresh slides, opened in late January to four-wheel-drive vehicles whose drivers could convince the military they had reason to venture into the disaster zone.

Colmenares, who the night of Dec. 15, 1999, was swept by the current for 100 yards before grabbing onto a doorway and climbing to safety, admits it’s been difficult. “My feelings have failed me at times,” he said. “I had to leave once to spend time with my family. I’m human. Yet I’m the only pastor in these communities, so I have to be strong to strengthen others, to be a fortress for those who are weak.”

Colmenares said much of what has kept him going is the solidarity that has come from all corners. Cuban physicians set up a clinic next to the church. Students from a nearby university, their campus covered with mud, sorted emergency food. UNICEF provided school supplies so that classes in the parish school could begin in mid-January. It welcomed dozens of new students from neighboring towns where schools no longer exist.

The relief operation in Naiguatá has been coordinated by the military, and Colmenares said the church is cooperating well with the soldiers. Such cooperation seems strange after a recent war of words between President Hugo Chavez and Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco García. The prelate opposed a new constitution that Chavez submitted successfully to voters Dec. 15, the day of the most serious flooding. The archbishop claimed the arrogance of the president “provoked the wrath of God,” resulting in the disaster. It was an observation that cost Velasco points even with his supporters.

“The archbishop says things in his own way, and sometimes perhaps he should say them differently,” Janeth Marquez, the director of Caritas Venezuela, told NCR. “But I don’t think he ever intended to offend the president.”

Chavez, former coup leader who was elected president a year ago, responded to Velasco by asking aloud why church leaders were so critical of him when they had turned a blind eye to the poorly hidden mistresses and scandalous personal enrichment of previous presidents. Wildly popular with the poor of Venezuela, Chavez claimed that pastoral workers at the grassroots supported him. He suggested the archbishop needed an exorcist.

At the grassroots, such squabbles seem far away. The military is in control of all of Vargas. A chaplain to local army and police units, Colmenares is treated with respect, even deference, by both officers and troops. “The armed forces asked the church for help,” Colmenares said. “This tragedy is bigger than any single institution can manage, and we work well together. There may be political problems at times between some bishops and the president, but when the words end, we extend the hand again.”

Redefining role of military

There have been complaints about extrajudicial executions of suspected looters and rapists in Vargas, but otherwise the military’s response to the disaster has earned kudos from all sides. This increased public profile was in the making before the rains. Shortly after taking office, Chavez -- often dressed in his red paratrooper’s beret, black combat boots and olive green uniform -- filled many government posts with officers and moved 100,000 soldiers from the barracks to the streets to rebuild schools and roads and set up special markets where the poor could buy vegetables at subsidized prices. It was good public relations and began to redefine the military’s role in national life. “The army never had a social role before Chavez. If it went onto the streets it was to repress people,” said Manuel Larreal, director of Ecumenical Action, a nongovernmental organization helping out in Naiguatá.

Yet Chavez and the generals appear to realize that December’s disaster is more than they can handle alone. They need a civil society that is organized and willing to work with the government in carrying out reconstruction. So the president recently paid a visit to a church-sponsored project in Caracas that he wants to serve as the poster child of such cooperation.

Over the last 40 years, families migrating from the impoverished countryside into Caracas have built shacks along the steep ravine where the Catuche River flows into the center of the capital. Hundreds of houses were built right up to the edge of the river -- and in some cases directly on top of the river, leaving just a small tunnel underneath for passage of the water. Many dumped raw sewage directly into the river, which is just a small trickle most of the year, and the ravine became an unsightly and unhealthy place. Engineers warned that serious floods would violently rip through houses in the ravine.

Things began to change along the Catuche a decade ago when Jesuit Fr. Jose Virtuoso pushed Jesuit philosophy students living in the neighborhood out of their seminary to work with residents to clean up the ravine. What the seminarians started soon blossomed into a neighborhood-wide organization that brought together church groups, city government, local builders and international funders in a partnership designed to improve the quality of life along the Catuche. Sewage pipes were installed, and families slowly began to be relocated out of the ravine, some into two church-sponsored apartment complexes overlooking the river. Residents dreamed of a river where fish, frogs and birds might one day return.

Then came December’s flooding, and within minutes hundreds of families along the ravine lost their homes. Yet the community’s extraordinary organization meant neighbors communicated and cooperated as the waters rose. Perhaps as few as 15 people died in Catuche, a small number compared to similar neighborhoods where hundreds lost their lives. Estimates for the death toll nationwide range from 15,000 to 50,000.

Although they face staggering challenges in the months ahead, Catuche’s leaders are markedly more hopeful than their counterparts in other affected areas. “We lost our homes and personal possessions, but our organization remains,” said Liliana Padilla, a researcher at a Jesuit center in the neighborhood. “That gives us hope at a time when hope is in short supply.”

Chavez spotlighted that hope Jan. 23 when he visited Catuche. “Count on us, Father,” Chavez declared as he embraced Virtuoso in front of a cheering crowd. “We’re going to work with you in this project, with the help of God and this united people.”

At a neighborhood center run by Fe y Alegría (“Faith and Joy”), a Venezuelan Catholic service organization, the president studied maps of the ravine with project officials. “We should send people from here to other places where people are just lying in hammocks, being lazy, waiting for someone else to solve their problems,” Chavez told them. “This is a project that should be multiplied.”

Catuche’s experience is unfortunately exceptional. With few such grassroots organizations, Chavez will have a harder time responding to the needs of over 100,000 people who remain in official shelters. He has promised homes and jobs to those willing to relocate to the sparsely populated interior, but his government is in serious financial straits, even without the disaster. Although a dramatic rise in oil revenues will provide some cash for reconstruction, unemployment and inflation are up, and the economy is shrinking. The government owes $3.6 billion this year on its $35 billion foreign debt. Besides those who lost houses in December, many more Venezuelans -- 3 million in Caracas alone -- live in substandard housing.

Chavez also must overcome a heritage of clientalism (patronage). The citizens have grown accustomed to political bosses providing favors to win votes. Four decades of such democratic but paternalistic rule have left many Venezuelans dependent on Chavez to solve their problems.

‘We trust the president’

Cristina Gonzalez is one of them. Since losing her house in La Guaira to a mudslide, Gonzalez has sat in a gymnasium in Valencia with 800 other storm victims. The governor of the state of Carabobo showed up to discuss alternatives, but she wasn’t interested. “We’ve got no confidence in him or the other politicians. They just make promises they won’t keep,” Gonzalez said. “Who we’re waiting for is the president. We trust him. The way he talks to us gives us confidence. We know he’ll help us. There’s always a rumor he’s coming here, but we know he’s had a lot to do since the tragedy and hasn’t had time to come here yet.”

Given such attitudes, churches and nongovernmental organizations have their work cut out for them. “This dependency on the government means people don’t want to organize to solve their own problems, they’d rather just wait for the government to make decisions,” said Loida Valera, Venezuelan coordinator for Action by Churches Together. “This is a good moment to change that attitude. The challenge for the churches and [nongovernmental organizations] is to help people learn to solve their own problems, to rebuild their own communities.”

In Blandin, the Caracas neighborhood hardest hit by the disaster, Capuchin Brs. Dave Villarroel and Yarmans Vegas walk through the rubble talking with survivors who are sorting through what’s left of their lives. Especially for Villarroel, it’s not an easy journey: He grew up in the neighborhood and lost several friends to the wall of water that swept off the steep hillsides. The house he grew up in survived only after his parents broke holes in the walls to let the water flow freely through the structure.

It has been an emotional experience for Villarroel. “During that first week, I felt depressed,” he told NCR. “But the people who live here, who don’t study theology like I do, they were giving thanks to God that they were still alive.” Villarroel’s voice broke. He walked up the rubble-filled street, finally picking up cement chunks and hurtling them hard against a pockmarked wall.

“When something like this happens, you want to blame someone,” Villarroel said. “And the easiest one to blame is God. Yet we’re the ones at fault. When you rob space from nature, sooner or later it will take back that space. We’re surrounded by proof of that.”

Compared to Catuche, Blandin is more typical of Caracas’ poor neighborhoods, and in the wake of the disaster, residents have been at the mercy of nongovernmental organizations and government agencies descending to help. After Sunday Mass at the local chapel, the two Capuchins meet with survivors to organize a neighborhood association that will represent residents with outside institutions. “The government and Caritas are up there and are willing to help, but the question remains about who will work with the people from below so that they can clearly define and articulate their needs,” Villarroel said. “That’s a job for the church.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000