- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela says that corrupt neglect of the poor and of the environment here and throughout Latin America contributed to the flood disaster that killed possibly 30,000 people last week in city slums and beach towns.
Thursday, a C-5 Galaxy, the largest airplane made in the United States, arrived from Puerto Rico with four machines that can purify more than 3,000 gallons of water per hour.
Also Thursday, the Venezuelan government appealed for worldwide help in caring for tens of thousands of survivors.
It made available around $775 million to repair roads, power lines and water pipes in a 60-mile strip of Vargas state buried under a sea of mud and debris.
Venezuela is struggling to deal with thousands of decaying corpses still buried in the mudslides.
The Caracas airport remained closed to all but relief flights bringing in body bags, water purification equipment and other aid.
In an interview, U.S. Ambassador John F. Maisto said the deaths were in part due to neglect.
"The real problem in Latin America is that you have formal democracy, but institutions of democracy are weak and flawed" everything from justice to accountability to building permits, said Mr. Maisto.
"This allows poor people to build [hillside] shacks and nothing is done about it," he said.
"There's also a relative lack of environmental concerns. These things have to be changed."
About half of the 4 million residents of Caracas live in shantytowns perched on steep hillsides surrounding the city's gleaming, modern core.
Since the oil booms of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s funneled wealth into Caracas, the city's population exploded. However, there was little space on the narrow valley floor of the city center for housing for the poor newcomers.
Mr. Maisto and many Venezuelans have been aware that the steep "ranchos," as the hillside homes are called, are not safe during heavy rains. Every few years, dozens die in mudslides when the hills become saturated by rain and debris slides down on the homes below.
"Thirty years ago, we had studies that showed these ranchos were being built on dangerous places and needed drainage and other services," said Teolinda Bolivar, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Central Venezuela.
"But nothing was done," said Ms. Bolivar in an interview after floods killed scores in city slums five years ago.
She studied the condition of the hillside slums for the government's National Housing Council and found that no one is able to control their growth.
When slum construction began, there was some cooperation in leaving open space and avoiding the most dangerous ridges, she said.
Local government provided some materials for drains and power. But the drains soon collapsed due to improper engineering.
When more people arrived desperate for housing, they ignored local councils and developed every square foot of space, adding more rooms and floors to get rent.
The "barrios," or slums, largely made of orange ceramic blocks and perched on thin, concrete posts, became a no man's land ruled by thugs.
In one barrio, residents said that no services were delivered there, no police ever came, no postman made deliveries, garbage was never collected and no one came to fix power lines and water pipes.
Yet each morning, hundreds of thousands of workers descend to make Caracas run.
Women in high-heeled shoes and spotless white blouses along with men in neat trousers or uniforms would go out to their jobs in banks, schools and offices.
Politicians have periodically said they would clean out the barrios by deporting Colombians and other foreigners lured by the jobs and by arresting the killers who shoot dozens each weekend.
Now President Hugo Chavez is blaming former governments for failure to enforce building codes and prevent the proliferation of the slums.
He wants to resettle thousands of flood survivors from the hillsides of Caracas as well as from the narrow strip of beach towns wiped out last week.
But plans for a mass migration to the vast, undeveloped Amazon basin in the south or to flatlands in the interior meet brisk opposition.
"I've been telling people in Washington that now that the Cold War is over, these natural disasters are sure to happen," said Mr. Maisto.
"We've got to do better," he said. "This is a key element of foreign policy just to be able to help in times of such a disaster."

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