18 April 2008


Just outside of Caracas, in the mountains in a patch of land called Camino de los Indios leftist President Hugo Chávez is building a new metropolis from scratch.
Caribia, the first of about a dozen "socialist cities" that is intended as a utopia of sorts, where all residents will participate in community affairs and grow crops such as carrots and coffee on patches of countryside that will surround their homes.
The city is bulldozed out of the tropical forest and will be populated with the denizens of Caracas's overcrowded slums. It would be a beautiful place, with shopping malls, parks, schools and enough neat four-story apartment blocks to house 100,000 people.
But where does socialism fit into this oil-rich nation where the rich-poor divide is as palpable as anywhere else in Latin America? Chávez has a name for it: 21st Century Socialism. Caribia embodies Chávez's vision that socialism and the intensely capitalist society of Venzuela can sit comfortably next to each other.
"Our goal is that there is no inequality, that everyone has an equal voice," says Rafael Lander, the vice minister of planning in the government's Ministry of Popular Power for Housing and Habitat. It's part of the government's push for adequate housing for Venezuelans, one of several "missions" for the poor that have been financed largely with oil wealth. But this socialist city is not just any old housing project. It will boast its own radio station and newspaper. The community will be ecologically sound and self-sustaining. There will be parks, a university, and medical clinics. The most important feature, planners say, is the 10 or so community councils that will be organized around groups of housing complexes. Residents will hail from high-risk neighborhoods, says Mr. Lander. When the program was announced, the local media quoted Chávez as saying: "The socialist cities are ecological cities for the family, for the people … not for consumerism."

The Washington Post article on Chávez' vision says:
In launching this extraordinary project, which he hopes will be the first of many around Venezuela, Chávez joins a long list of rulers who have dreamed of converting nature into orderly living space for the masses. Among them are Stalin, Mao and Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu -- but also the more benign Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president who, back in the 1970s, thought it would be a good idea to move 5 million of his countrymen into cookie-cutter villages partly financed by the World Bank.
Like all of these men, Chávez acts on an ideology that anthropologist James C. Scott of Yale has called "high modernism." In his brilliant 1998 book about the phenomenon, "Seeing Like a State," Scott explored the peculiar mix of good intentions and megalomania that has driven one unchecked government after another to pursue the dream of a reconcentrated populace: "a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws."
and further:
Architecturally and ecologically unsustainable, high modernist projects always collapse of their own weight sooner or later. As Scott writes, "the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities . . . that have failed their residents." Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union fit that assessment also, as visitors to Germany's Eisenhuettenstadt, begun in the 1950s as Stalinstadt, can attest. Designated "the first socialist city on German soil" by East Germany's Communists, it was plunked down next to an immense steel mill and commanded to thrive. Today, the depressed city is hemorrhaging residents.
But Chávez, the tribune of Venezuela's poor, is not listening. He is thinking big. He is like previous high-modernist authoritarians, who, as Scott writes, "regarded themselves as far smarter and far-seeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were."