Venezuela's Chavez Attempts New City

Awash in oil profits, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is attempting to build a city from scratch. The plan is to erect a municipality in a national park just outside Caracas and away from the pollution.

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President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela appears to love grandiose plans. One is an ambitious and possibly foolhardy idea - building a city from scratch. But awash in oil money, the government has carved out a mountain top and is constructing a city for 100,000 people.

NPR's Juan Ferero visited the construction site outside Caracas.

FERERO: Camino de los Indios is, by air, only minutes from the pollution and traffic of Caracas. Here, as a brisk wind blows on a verdant mountaintop, it seems like another world.

The towering Avila Mountain, a national park, lies just to the east. To the north through the fog is the Caribbean and all around is a carpet of green.

FERERO: A forest filled with frogs and crickets, parakeets and monkeys. These days it's also filled with earth movers and cement trucks.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

FERERO: And workers in hard hats whistling as they lay down a foundation. Government officials say the idea for the project came to Chavez as he flew over the site in a helicopter.

FERERO: Housing Minister Ramon Carrizales is in charge of turning a dream into a reality.

Mr. RAMON CARRIZALES (Minister of Housing, Venezuela): (Through translator) I think that with the president's intuition - the president is a man of great intuition - he perceived that you can develop something there. So we started in November 2006.

FERERO: The development is consistent with Venezuela's new socialist direction, one enshrined in a new constitution the government is proposing. Carrizales says the idea is to alleviate overcrowding and build a self-sustaining city with farms, factories and parks.

Mr. CARRIZALES: (Through translator) Developing that concept, we're going towards the construction of new cities. We're starting with this city, which the president's calling Caribbean.

FERERO: Dr. Gustavo Ysaguirre(ph) isn't so eager. He lives a few miles away in a community of affluent professionals who escaped the chaos of Caracas. On a recent day he pointed at Caribbean, and he groused. He and others have been told their homes will be expropriated so Caribbean can expand.

Dr. GUSTAVO YSAGUIRRE: Fifteen kilometers from here, over there, they are working. They are destroying all of them - the hill.

FERERO: The people who would live in Caribbean are also a bit wary. The government is planning to relocate residents who now live in a mudslide-prone barrio called Federico Cidos(ph), which would be razed.

On a recent visit, a powerful rainstorm drenched the barrio, where homes cling precariously to steep hill sides.

(Soundbite of rain)

FERERO: Despite the danger of mudslides, Alidio Beserra(ph) doesn't want to leave.

Mr. ALIDIO BESERRA(ph): (Through translator) I don't agree with it. And many people here don't agree - no one. This is a good neighborhood and we're used to it. We've been here for 40 years.

FERERO: Clemente Delgado(ph), though, is worried enough that he's ready to move his family.

Mr. CLEMENTE DELGADO: (Through translator) If they offer it to me, I'll accept.

FERERO: Officials see Caribbean as a way of helping the most vulnerable. However, critics compare Venezuela's city building plans with that of the old Soviet Union.

Maria Josephina Whites(ph) is an urban planner.

Ms. MARIA JOSEPHINA WHITES(Urban Planner): (Through translator) The majority of socialist cities that were built in socialist countries failed. When you create something by ideological decree, it doesn't respond to the real needs of people. Cities have their own origin, develop on their own, and have their own dynamic.

FERERO: Getting to Caribbean is not easy. It's a bone-crushing trip in an aging Jeep on rocky, unpaved roads.

Alfredo Tedalo(ph) is one of the engineers contracted to build Caribbean. And his project is a four-story apartment house to be completed later this year. When he looks around, he sees it all coming together into a vibrant community.

Mr. ALFREDO TEDALO (Engineer): (Through translator) The city will have all the services - supermarkets, pharmacies, shopping malls, places to park - all the services a small city can have.

FERERO: If built, it will also complete the president's socialist dream.

Juan Ferero, NPR News, Camino de los Indios, Venezuela.

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