- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is being criticized for allowing a constitutional referendum to proceed on Dec. 15 rather than order an immediate evacuation from coastal areas where massive mudslides killed as many as 20,000 people later that night.
Earlier in the day, the Department of Civil Defense issued a warning, a copy of which has been obtained by The Washington Times, saying thousands of people were at risk because of intense rains that had sent rivers over their banks.
Asked yesterday whether he ignored the warning, Mr. Chavez answered defiantly: "Let them investigate me."
"Let them put me before the firing squad if I have any personal responsibility in this," said the president, whose powers were much enhanced by the constitutional vote.
Foreign Minister Jose Vincent Rangel said in an interview yesterday that 15,000 people were confirmed dead and 6,000 missing after a deluge of mud, rocks and trees swamped the state of Vargas, a half-hour drive from the capital, Caracas. Mr. Rangel had previously predicted the death toll would top 30,000.
While thousands were dying in Vargas, the governor of the adjacent state of Miranda ignored the referendum and ordered an immediate evacuation of endangered areas in his state, said Seyril R. Siegel a member of the U.N. team directing hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency relief.
Gov. Enrique Mendoza "saved the lives of his people by getting them out," she said in an interview yesterday. "He saw what was happening with a dam in his state and got people to higher ground."
The Guapo Dam burst, flooding vast areas and destroying crops, homes, roads and bridges. But few people died in Miranda state.
Mr. Chavez was ebullient when he appeared on television the night of Dec. 15 to celebrate the victory in the referendum on his new constitution. But hours earlier, his office received a severe warning from the head of the Department of Civil Defense.
"Declare a state of emergency," it recommended. "The situation is of such magnitude that it requires creating an Emergency Executive Command that coordinates all operations of aid, medical help, logistics, infrastructure, food supply and other assistance."
Mr. Chavez did declare a state of emergency and noted in his post-election speech that severe rains had taken some lives. That speech was the last thing many people saw or heard before the storm knocked out their electricity.
But a civil defense warning of the nature he received should have prompted an evacuation order for the Vargas coast, said Mrs. Siegel, a U.N. specialist currently serving with the Andes Development Corp., a multilateral lending institution.
The civil defense warning did not specifically call for an evacuation, but it said "rising rivers and strong precipitation" threatened several states, including Vargas, where the towns near the Maiquetia Airport and port of La Guaira were devastated at 2 a.m. the next morning.
"The civil defense reports were indications the situation could be critical, and yet no one gave an evacuation order," Mrs. Siegel said.
While newspapers and other media have been reluctant to place blame for the failure to act in what now appears to be the second-biggest disaster in Latin America this century, they have begun to ask questions.
Jorge Olavarria, a well-known political analyst who was once very close to Mr. Chavez, wrote Sunday in El Nacional that the "irresponsible, and inept [acts] of the government of Hugo Chavez have brought on the biggest natural catastrophe in our history."
El National also questioned Mr. Chavez's whereabouts on Dec. 16, a day after the rain-soaked slopes of Mount Avila collapsed into rivers of uprooted trees, huge boulders and mud that covered thousands of homes with 20 to 30 feet of debris.
The paper cited sources saying he flew to a presidential retreat on the island of Orchila to celebrate his election victory. Mr. Rangel called that report "a lie, an infamous lie," in his interview yesterday at Miraflores presidential palace.
A former leftist with a long history of criticizing American governments, Mr. Rangel conceded he has often been opposed to U.S. actions in Latin America, but expected good relations with the current administration in Washington.
Mr. Chavez told The Washington Times yesterday that he was grateful for U.S. assistance in coping with the disaster, which has left an estimated 350,000 people without homes or jobs.
"I want to say thanks for the help and the solidarity," Mr. Chavez said after a speech to relief officials, in which he proposed the creation of a Latin American "army" to fight hunger, defend sovereignty and cope with natural disasters.
He said that his idol, Simon Bolivar, liberator of Venezuela and several other Latin American countries from colonial Spanish rule in the 1800s, and George Washington "are the same" as they both sought to create noble and free peoples.
Mr. Chavez said he was ordering an investigation of the collapse of the Guapo Dam, but he has steadfastly refused to take the blame for failing to order an evacuation.
There was little question of blame immediately after the floods, with attention focused on efforts to move more than 200,000 people to emergency shelters by helicopter or feed them in isolated villages via relief drops.
Mr. Chavez won wide praise here and abroad, including by U.S. Army officers taking part in the rescue efforts, for organizing a swift, coordinated and effective response to the floods.
In sharp contrast to the Turkish earthquake disaster a few months earlier, when the Turkish army waited many days before intervening, Mr. Chavez donned his colonel's uniform and red beret and led one of the relief commando teams.
Political critics did not want to be seen as making political capital of the disaster, so they withheld criticism. Some newspapers feared a crackdown on the press if they criticized the popular president during the crisis, said one Venezuelan close to Mr. Chavez.

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