Film Adds Fuel to Venezuela's Social Fires
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Residents of Venezuela have been taking to the streets in recent months to protest about a series of high-profile crimes.
In May, three boys and their driver were kidnapped and killed in the capital. Last week, Austria's consul in Venezuela was shot and wounded in an attempted robbery at his Embassy in the capital Caracas.
While violence in Venezuela is not a new problem, it is getting new political traction. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was recently in Venezuela, and she's filed this report.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:
It's a busy Sunday at the butcher's stall at the (foreign spoken) or the flower market, in the San Louis district of Caracas. Women and men buy their weekly supply of meat from attendants bustling behind a display case packed with choice cuts. There is something off, though, in this mundane scene. The red metal security door that is used to close up the stall in the evenings is pockmarked with dozens of bullet holes.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) I heard two bursts of gunfire at around five this morning. It was from a machine gun, which was unusual. But we frequently hear shots fired here, and the criminals are better armed than the police.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Berta is a teacher who's shopping with her daughter. She refuses to give her last name, for fear of reprisals. She says that two men were killed before dawn just near where she's standing. The speculation on the street is that it was a tit-for-tat assassination between rival gangs. One of the bodies had over 30 bullets pumped into it.
Berta says people in her neighborhood have become accustomed to the rattle of guns in the night.
BERTA (Venezuelan Teacher): (Through translator) We recognize the type of weapon they're using by the sound. We know when it's a .38 caliber. When you live in a barrio like this, you learn to differentiate one gun from another. We've learned about them all. There's so much violence now it's out of control all over Venezuela. The insecurity is so great, now we cannot bear it anymore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Unsurprisingly, the crime rate here has become a political issue ahead of the December presidential elections. Those who dislike the socialist president Hugo Chavez put the blame squarely on his soldiers. Chavez, in turn, has said the recent murders were the product of a sick society twisted by capitalism, and has accused his enemies of trying to jump on the issue for political gain.
Berta is from a poor barrio, where support for Chavez and his socialist revolution is strong, but she says the president's often fiery rhetoric has incited class tensions and causes people to disrespect the rule of law.
BERTA: (Through translator) The president's discourses have a lot to do with the violence in this country. The values have been lost. The ethics and morals that the country had have been lost. Now nobody respects anybody else.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Across town, a small public hospital in the poor area of Ghattia(ph), in Caracas, is on the front-lines of the crime wave here. Wearing a red T-shirt with Chavez' picture on it, Maria Cormoto Martinez, works here as a volunteer. She says Saturday nights are the worst.
Ms. MARIA CORMOTO MARTINEZ (Hospital Volunteer): (Through translator) People here have come in riddled with bullets. Some are dying. Others arrive dead, and others die while they are in the emergency room.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But she is a staunch Chavez supporter, and says his government, which pumps money into a broad range of social programs, is addressing the root causes of crime, which will have an effect in the long term.
Ms. MARTINZEZ: (Through translator) I think there's a lot of violence and a lot of criminality, but I think the government is doing what they can to lessen it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the thing is, it's difficult to tell here what the real statistics are. Outside the main police forensic center, journalists wait for the bodies to be brought in. For the reporters here, it's real gumshoe journalism. To find out the most basic numbers, like how many homicides there've been on any given day, they have to physically count the bodies arriving at the morgue here.
Gustavo Rodriguez(ph) is a journalist who works for the opposition newspaper El Universal. He's been on the crime beat for 20 years.
Mr. GUSTAVO RODRIGUEZ (Journalist): (Through translator) They give no statistics. One has to use tricks to get information out of extra official sources. Several years ago, the government stopped giving numbers to any journalist for many organizations. They closed the press office of the criminal unit of the police, and now there is no one there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He estimates that at least 40 people are killed a day in Venezuela. In Caracas he estimates that there are 3,000 murders every year. Crime, he says, is the worst he's ever seen it.
Rafeal Ricardo Jimenez Dan is Venezuela's Deputy Interior Minister. He says that for the seven years President Hugo Chavez has been in power, there have been other crucial priorities.
Mr. RAFEAL RICARDO JIMENEZ DAN (Deputy Interior Minister, Venezuela): (Through translator) The fact is that confronted with a hugely deteriorated society, with profound inequalities and growing poverty, the first efforts of the government were directed towards resolving the problems with nutrition, health, and education of the population.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says that the government has a slew of programs in the works, such as a weapons buy-back initiative. Crime, he says, is being addressed.
Others are not so sure though. The most popular Venezuelan film in the history of this country is called Secustro Express. It's about the phenomenon of expressed kidnappings, where someone is grabbed for a short period of time in order to extort money from them or their families. The government, though, has decried the film, calling it a falsification of the truth and legal proceedings have been launched against its Venezuelan director.
Jonathan Jakubowicz says he was once a supporter of President Chavez, but not anymore.
Mr. JONATHAN JAKUBOWICZ (Former Chavez Supporter, Venezuela): They spend millions trying to convince the world that they're creating this revolution and that they are actually improving the nation. And you know, there goes a film that becomes the popular film of all time in Venezuela and shows the reality. And it's a reality not only they don't want to see, they seriously don't want it to be shown.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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