Venezuela Copes with Crumbling Infrastructure While Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been known for his programs aimed at fighting poverty. But despite booming oil revenues, Venezuela's basic infrastructure is showing signs of wear and tear.
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Venezuela Copes with Crumbling Infrastructure

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Venezuela Copes with Crumbling Infrastructure

Venezuela Copes with Crumbling Infrastructure

Venezuela Copes with Crumbling Infrastructure

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While Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been known for his programs aimed at fighting poverty. But despite booming oil revenues, Venezuela's basic infrastructure is showing signs of wear and tear.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

American officials suspect that Osama Bin Laden himself escaped into Pakistan. It happened as the Taliban lost control of nearby Afghanistan. We're talking next to a man involved in the effort to catch Osama Bin Laden in 2001.

Gary Bernsten is a former field commander for the CIA who's now written a memoir. It's called Jawbreaker. Before Afghanistan, Bernsten's career took him from the Persian Gulf to East Africa to South America and he compares his job to that of a firefighter.

Mr. GARY BERNSTEN (Former Field Commander, CIA): I was a fire fighter, actually, in a previous career. When I was in the Air Force, I was a crew chief on a rescue squad. I learned to operate under high stress and crises; it's about improvisation.

INSKEEP: You were part of the American team of intelligence and military personnel trying to track down Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures, at the end of 2001, in the mountains of Southern Afghanistan. And, can you place us in one spot where you know Osama Bin Laden was for sure?

BERNSTEN: Yes, in mid-November the capital, Kabul collapses. I immediately learn that Bin Laden has fled into Nangarhar Province, Southeastern Afghanistan. I send an eight-man team into a Province, which is in complete chaos. There are company sized Chechen elements moving around, al Qaeda, Taliban. And I sit down with my deputy and he and seven others link up with a warlord...

INSKEEP: An Afghan warlord.

BERNSTEN: An Afghan warlord, not a member of the Northern Alliance. We moved with him down to the mountains, we had learned that Bin Laden was up in the mountains. I put a four-man team up onto a mountain with ten Afghan guides and they got over the mother lode of al Qaeda. Bin Laden had fallen back with about a thousand people. They used the laser designator that they have and a radio and they call in air strikes relentlessly for 56 hours that begins the battle of Tora Bora.

INSKEEP: That would -- I should mention, that's the major weapon that your CIA guys had, was this laser pointer so that you could identify targets and somebody else could come blow them up.

BERNSTEN: Exactly, because there were so few of us and so many of the enemy that, you don't want to be in gun fights with people like that, you want to use air power, you want to leverage technology. And, at one point I allowed food and water to be delivered to Bin Laden, I knew it was going to be sent in because he was in contact with people in Jalalabad and people on the outside. We knew what location he was at and we had a Blue 82, at 15,000 pound device thrown at that location. And you have to remember they had caves to defend themselves and they had a lot of people.

You had a very small number of Americans inside a province alone and the Afghans that we're working with were Pashtuns, who had previously been allied with the Taliban and with al Qaeda. So, we are paying off warlords to try to get them to switch sides. This is dangerous for my team; I was always concerned about the fact that some of our allies could turn on us at any moment.

INSKEEP: And, let's be frank, when you're talking about getting warlords to switch sides in Afghanistan, we're talking about large stacks of hundred dollar bills here right?

BERNSTEN: You got that right, yes.

INSKEEP: Truckloads?

BERNSTEN: Not truckloads of money, but I had a big rubber trunk and I dragged around about $11 million with me and you know, made payments as needed.

INSKEEP: Well, I mean you started with $11 million, how many dollars did you have at the end of a number of weeks of fighting?

BERNSTEN: I spent most of it.

INSKEEP: Wow.

BERNSTEN: Took a long time to do the accounting.

INSKEEP: I imagine, don't get a lot of receipts in that situation. You write that you urged for American ground troops, US Army Rangers to be deployed.

BERNSTEN: Yeah, I wanted, you know I had asked for six to eight hundred. The earlier they could have been introduced the more time there would have been, there would have been more space in-between where Bin Laden was and the border was, to drop them in-between. The longer we waited he was approaching the border; he was creeping toward the border trying to defend himself. And of course, the space became smaller and smaller in which they could be inserted successfully.

INSKEEP: Because you were not going to get permission to drop American troops into the other side of the border in Pakistan.

BERNSTEN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: If somebody came to you today and said, give us a plan to go after Osama Bin Laden now, what are some elements you'd put in that plan?

BERNSTEN: I have thought about that and honestly, I wouldn't speak about it on the radio. I know exactly what I would do but I don't think he'll be captured, I think he'll be killed ultimately.

INSKEEP: That's Gary Bernsten the author of Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

(Music Soundbite) *** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDRY *** RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Winter Olympic in Italy are just three weeks away. Usually these major international sports events unleash a wave of national euphoria. But not, it seems, in sports-crazy Italy where the Winter Games are being largely ignored. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

The 2006 Winter Olympics will take place in the city of Turin and in mountain areas up to an hour-and-a-half drive away. One of the most stunning is Sestriere, site of the Alpine skiing venues and surging skyward at more than 6000 feet. Snowmaking machines are working at full throttle, even on the highest peaks, because it hasn't snowed since December. All the venues appear ready, and Olympic officials are proud of what they've achieved.

Daniel Bessoni(ph), a spokesman for the Turin Games organizing committee, says numerous new ski lifts and cable cars have been built.

Mr. DANIEL BESSONI (Spokesman, Turin Olympic Games Organizing Committee):

Right in front of the Olympic Village, athletes will have a very comfortable way of reaching the venues, which in the past Olympic years would be a very comfortable way of reaching the slopes, also for the tourists.

POGGIOLI: Today, the slopes have a James Bondian look. Soldiers in full camouflage are swishing down the slopes. They'll be among the 10,000 strong security agents who will be deployed between Turin and the many mountain venues.

The Olympic protective shield will include 1,000 members of an anti-aircraft artillery unit. Little is known about the Games' security plans, but officials indicate that the defenses put in place for John Paul's funeral last April in Rome will serve as a blueprint. And as workers go on overtime for frenetic, last minute preparations, Italy is grooming, perhaps, another Alberto Tomba.

On Monday, the sports news was a flurry of week-long victories for Italians in winter sports and the fifth consecutive victory for favorite son, Giorgio Rocca. But in the city of Turin there seems to be little excitement either for these achievements or for the upcoming international sporting event. For enlightenment, we turn to the journalist's proverbial first source, a taxi driver. Here is Gianni Rimondi.

Mr. GIANNI RIMONDI (Taxi Driver, Turin, Italy): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man (Translator): This is typical of Turin. It has never been a warm city. Whatever happens here, people always react with a cool reserve.

POGGIOLI: But there's not just reserve. Ticket sales are lagging. There are still hotel rooms available. And newspapers, both local and national, give little coverage to the Olympic Games. The journey of the Olympic flame northward along the Italian boot has not been smooth. It has been repeatedly obstructed by a variety of protests, from anti-globalists denouncing Olympic Games sponsor, Coca-Cola, to people with local grievances. A large store in Turin sells goods with the official Olympic Games logo. A young woman who works here admits, sotto voce, that sales have been poor. She says lots of her friends are turned off by what she calls the crass merchandising and all the money that's been spent for the Olympic event.

Mario Vianno, in charge of urban planning at Turin's City Hall, agrees.

Mr. MARIO VIANNO (Turin, Italy): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: People are dismayed by this Disneyland effect. Every four years the International Olympic Committee demands a huge outlay for gigantic structures. The IOC should ask itself whether all this makes sense, whether this is rational or madness.

POGGIOLI: The overall budget of the Games is two-and-a-half billion dollars. The Organizing Committee suddenly found itself with a budget hole of $30 million after the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi unexpectedly cut the Olympic funding.

David Bonfo, an editor at the newspaper, La Republica, says many people in Turin suspect the funding cut was politically motivated.

Mr. DAVID BONFO (Editor, La Republica Newspaper): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: It came right after Belusconi's party lost regional elections here. The government suddenly began to show indifference towards the Olympic Games.

POGGIOLI: After a week of frenetic negotiations, local banks and municipal administrations agreed to cover the budget deficit. But Turin mayor, Sergio Chiamparino, could not hide his bitterness. He told reporters last week that Prime Minister Berlusconi has not yet announced if and when he will come to Turin during the games.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. *** TRANSRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDRY *** INSKEEP: This morning we're remembering the first soldier killed in Iraq in 2006. Keith Seinfeld and member station KPLU has the story of Staff Sergeant Chris Van Der Horn.

Mr. KEITH SEINFELD (KPLU Reporter): Looking back, Chris Van Der Horn's parents, Nancy and Bob, say it seems almost like he was destined to be a soldier. The family had no military connections, but from the earliest age, Chris was drawn to the idea of the soldier hero.

Ms. NANCY VAN DER HORN (mother of Chris): It was soldiers, I'm gonna be a policeman, I'm gonna be a fireman, or a superhero. There was a period of life, when he was around three or four, where he had his Batman cape and he wore it everywhere for a year, church, pre-school and shopping. And he liked playing with guns.

Mr. BOB VAN DER HORN (father of Chris): We decided to raise our children without guns until we found that every stick in the yard turned into a gun and every finger was gun. And we finally just gave up as we were beaten to submission so...

SEINFELD: Chris grew up in a woodsy neighborhood just outside Seattle. In 1989, when he was just 20, Chris enlisted in the Army.

VAN DER HORN: We thought it would be a good decision because he was having a hard time trying to get himself into a career or any type of a set pattern and we thought the Army would be good for him. And it was.

SEINFELD: While on a training assignment in Arkansas he met his future wife Teresa. Chris served in Bosnia and West Africa. After seven years he left the Army and he and Teresa settled in Tacoma, not far from his parents. He worked as a police officer and continued in the National Guard. During this time, their first son was born. Then, at age 35, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he decided he wanted to go back into the Army.

VAN DER HORN: We were really surprised when he went back in the second time.

SEINFELD: Chris's father Bob.

VAN DER HORN: But I think that, he wasn't very happy in civilian life. He just could not find a position to where he felt comfortable.

SEINFELD: His wife Teresa Van Der Horn says, at first she wasn't sure if he was serious. But when Chris was able to lose 40 pounds in four months to meet the requirements, she saw how badly he wanted it.

Ms. TERESA VAN DER HORN (Wife): We prayed about it and I said well, if he actually gets in, then that must be where God wants him, you know?

SEINFELD: She said, I'll be with you whatever it takes. But others were bewildered.

Mrs. VAN DER HORN: I remember my dad saying, you know why would he do that? Why didn't he just take care of his family? And I said, I think this is his way of taking care of his family. He feels like protecting our country and helping take care of the terrorism issues and helping the Iraqis. Those are all things that are important that are going to make our world better for our family. And if men like him don't step to the plate then who will?

SEINFELD: Staff Sergeant Chris Van Der Horn was killed on January first, north of Baghdad. He was riding in a HumVee when a roadside bomb exploded and flipped the truck he was 37. He leaves his wife Teresa, his five year old son Max, and five month old son Liam. For NPR News, I'm Keith Seinfeld, in Seattle.

(Music Soundbite) *** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDRY *** RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been acknowledged for his programs aimed at fighting poverty in the world's fifth largest oil exporter. But despite booming oil revenues, Venezuela's basic infrastructure is showing signs of wear and tear. Brian Ellsworth reports on some of the new challenges facing this immensely popular president.

BRIAN ELLSWORTH reporting:

35-year old Enesca Anado(ph) is a fan of President Chavez' social development programs. Thanks to him, she says, her ramshackle slum of Ojo de Agua receives free healthcare and subsidized groceries. But these days she is losing patience. But the closure of a key bridge along a highway leading out of Caracas, what was once a half hour commute, has turned into a four-hour ordeal.

Ms. ENESCA ANADO (Chavez Supporter): (Spanish spoken)

ELLSWORTH: Traffic is debilitating, she says. Basic food products are harder to obtain. She worries that the unstable soil in her neighborhood could begin to erode, possibly carrying houses with it.

For over 50 years, the highway connecting mountainous Caracas to the nearby Caribbean has been a lifeline linking the capital to the country's primary port and principle airport. Now, traffic has been diverted to a winding two-lane road built in the early 20th century. The state repeated warnings about the country's core of engineers for over a year. The Chavez government still has not finished an alternate route around the bridge.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)

ELLSWORTH: Chavez sought to deflect criticism. He said the country's opposition media has attempted to blame him for the bridge problem. After all, he pointed out, the problem was discovered 20 years ago. Previous governments also failed to maintain the crucial bridge, which is now warped and close to collapsing due to movements in the earth beneath it.

But the bridge closure comes at a time when Venezuela's infrastructure is showing increasing signs of deterioration. While Chavez has spent enormous sums on social programs, many complain the government has overlooked basic maintenance. Two additional highways connecting Caracas to the eastern and western regions of the country are facing potential bridge collapses.

Electricity blackouts in Venezuela's provinces doubled between 2004 and 2005, according to government statistics. And the coastal state of Vargas still bears the scars of the 1999 mudslides that killed some 30,000 people. Nonetheless, Venezuela's GDP grew by a whopping 9.4% in 2005 on high oil price, and unemployment fell from 11% to only 8 percent. Chavez celebrated these figures last week in his State of the Union Address, that barely mentioned the bridge problem. Watching the speech in his living room, economist Orlando Ochoa said the failure to invest in basic services will soon hinder such growth.

Mr. ORLANDO OCHOA (Economist): When some attention is being paid, we don't see a kind of comprehensive plan, concerning the infrastructure. And Venezuela, that used to have the highest quality infrastructure of communication of Latin America, has now one that is crumbling down.

ELLSWORTH: Despite the onslaught of media attention, the bridge has done little political damage to Chavez. His allies have 100 percent majority of the legislature, and he is expected to win a resounding victory in this year's presidential elections. This month thousands of supporters from Europe and the U.S. will visit Venezuela as it hosts an annual gathering of activists, called the World Social Forum. However, these visitors will face a three and a half hour journey from the airport to Caracas, a trip that took only 45 minutes just a month ago.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Ellsworth, in Caracas.

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