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Why Do Poor People Living in an Abandoned Skyscraper So Outrage the New Yorker?
Jon Lee Anderson is a reporter I've long admired–since reading Inside the League: The Shocking Expose of How Terrorists, Nazis and Latin American Death Squads Have Infiltrated the World Anti-Communist League, which he co-wrote in 1986. But his latest piece for the New Yorker, "Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chavez Wrought in Venezuela?" (1/28/13–subscription required), reads almost like a parody of corporate media coverage of an official enemy state.
"For decades…Venezuela was a dynamic and mostly stable democracy. As one of the world's most oil rich nations, it had a growing middle class, with an impressively high standard of living…. Most other Latin Americans had come to regard the country as a beautiful place for beautiful people."
Then Hugo Chavez came to power: "His pronounced goal was to elevate the poor," Anderson writes. "In Caracas, the nation's capital, the results of his fitful campaign are plain to see":
After decades of neglect, poverty, corruption and social upheaval, Caracas has deteriorated beyond all measure…. Venders wade through the gridlock, hawking toys, insecticides and bootleg DVDs, while drug addicts wash windshields or juggle for change. Spray-painted graffiti covers facades; trash is piled up on roadsides. The Guaire River, which runs through the heart of the city, is a gray torrent of foul-smelling water. Along its banks live hundreds of homeless indigents, mostly drug addicts and the mentally ill.
Anderson goes on like this for 11 pages. The astute reader will note that Chavez has not been in power for "decades," and at one point the reporter does note that "by the time Chavez assumed power, in 1999, the city center was neglected and run-down." But how it fell to this state from what Anderson calls "the good life in Venezuela" is not discussed; nor is anyone blamed for any of Venezuela's problems other than Chavez himself. This is, as the subhead says, a portrait of what Chavez has wrought.
And Chavez's problem, aside from what Anderson calls his "typical grandiosity," is that he takes things that don't belong to him. Architecture professor Guillermo Barrios, whose judgments the story returns to repeatedly, says that Chavez's urban policy "can be defined by confiscation, expropriation, governmental incapacity and the use of violence." Later, talking about people living in abandoned buildings, Barrios fumes, "The political discourse that has justified the invasions, the outright thievery, has come out of Chavez's speeches."
The bulk of the article is devoted to a half-finished skyscraper called the Tower of David, abandoned since 1993, that's been inhabited by squatters since 2007. Weirdly, Anderson seems to feel genuine moral outrage at the fact that people have turned a useless ruin into a home:
For many caraquenos, the Tower is a byword for everything that is wrong with their society: a community of invaders living in their midst, controlled by armed gangsters with the tacit acquiescence of the Chavez government.
When Anderson tours the building later in the piece, it seems relatively peaceful, but he never really gives up the idea that there's all sorts of scary violence there that he never sees. The violence that is apparent is to the sacredness of private property, and that seems to trouble the New Yorker's correspondent. A Venezuelan journalist describes the Tower's residents as "refugees from an underdeveloped state living in a structure that belongs to the First World."
When the Tower's leader defends their occupation, saying, "We rescued it with the vision of living here in harmony," Anderson sneers, "This was a minority opinion." For proof, he turns again to Barrios: "The Tower of David wasn't a beautiful example of self-determination by the people but a violent invasion."
Of course, the idea that the Chavez-hating architect represents the majority opinion in Venezuela more than the Chavista community leader is dubious. As Anderson admits toward the end of the article, Chavez has won "one election after another." But that just makes Venezuelans "the victims of their affection for a charismatic man, whom they allowed to become the central character on the Venezuelan stage, at the expense of everything else."
Everything else? You'd be shocked to learn after reading the New Yorker piece that Venezuelans have done quite well economically under Chavez's administration, with per capita income rising 58 percent since 1999. And as average income has risen, Venezuelan wealth has become markedly more equally distributed (Extra!, 12/12), so the gains for the poor have been even greater (FAIR Blog, 12/13/12).
Anderson's acknowledgment of this could hardly be more grudging: "The poorest Venezuelans are marginally better off these days," he writes. It seems like for the New Yorker, rising standards of living for the poor don't matter much when weighed against the fact that rich people lost some property they weren't using.