By Anthony Milne

Arriving in bustling Caracas, you would never re-
alize--until you turned on the television or read the newspaper--the extent of the catastrophe that occurred on December 16th just 20 miles away on the north coast. There, where Venezuela meets the Carib-
bean sea, thousands still lie buried under tons of mud. The surface as it dries blows about in choking clouds of dust, down the throats and noses of homeless survivors and those who have come to help them.

Following Venezuela's north coast, 200 miles or so out of Simón Bolívar International Airport, the flight captain on the first BWIA flight allowed in let me sit in the cockpit to see what we could of the flood damage. Most of the passengers on that flight were Venezuelans, apparently coming home to see for themselves what had happened. It was Dec-
ember 29th, the day after Simón Bolívar had been reopened. Vargas is one of the smallest of Vene-
zuela's 30-odd states, and the area so savagely affected by the unprecedented deluge is just a tiny part of Venezuela, which occupies more than 600,000 square miles, the size of France and Britain put together.

At 5,000 feet it was difficult to make out details of the destruction. But there were huge, ugly brown tongues of mud in the valleys, broadening out like big brown beaches where they met the sea. Simón Bolívar, also called Maiquet, had been closed to international flights since the disaster, at an enormous cost in landing fees and other charges, and was now being used exclusively as a centre for rescue operations. Here the grim task of filling thousands of body bags was taking place. Some of the thousands who had been rescued, with their lives and virtually nothing else intact, were given shelter there or ferried to army barracks and other loca-
tions. Army aircraft had been flying in from La Carlota--officially the Base Aerea Francisco de Miranda--the military airport in east-central Caracas, bringing supplies and rescue teams.

But Simón Bolívar was still far from fully func-
tional, with parts sealed off and makeshift immi-
gration centres in use. Special buses at $6(US) a seat were being made available to incoming pass-
engers. The usual taxis and minibuses were not operational. The traffic was all one-way towards the city along the grand autopista through the moun-
tains. For a while the road had been made virtually impassable by huge landslides. The two long tunnels through which the autopista passes got filled with debris, and part of one appeared to have collapsed.

At last we got to the Chacao metro station and found the city about us humming along as usual. Most of the clean-up there was complete. Mud, water and tree trunks had been removed from the metro tunnels, and there was a smell of fresh oil in the stations. From Chacao I traveled a short distance along the Avenida Beethoven to the eight-storey Hotel Beethoven, a bargain accomodation at TT$150 (15,000 Venezuelan Bolivares) a night.  It's located in an area of small shops, close-by shopping centres, car-repair garages and panaderias, whereyou can take your morning cafe negro grande and bread with ham and cheese or large biscuits of extraordinary taste and
design. The streets nearby are named after other musicians  and artists, and the closest metro sta-
tion is Sabana Grande, where many bookstores are located.

The Beethoven is a fine hotel if you don't mind toilets that clog up and the occasional cockroach. And you couldn't ask for a nicer staff. So much so that I was a little homesick for the place after Hipolito Moona, a Trinidadian-Venezuelan friend, came to rescue me. A couple days later I found myself in a rented room in an urbanizacion of Cali-
fornia Sur, a short walk from the Moonas, in the home of Edgar Ganteaume Pantin, a retired electrical engineer in his seventies. His grandfather came to Venezuela after falling in love with one of the Caracas beauties you see on every street, metro station and shop in that town.

Meanwhile, what happened on the coast had given birth to vigorous political debates about whose fault it was, what was being done for survivors, etc.--all this in an election year. The National Contitutional Assembly has completed Venezuela's twentieth constitution, which created Venezuela's Fifth Republic and renamed the country the Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela after that South American hero of heroes, Simón Bolívar. The election for a new president, congress, state governors and other officials has been postponed from March to June or July. My host's, Senor Ganteaume Pantin's, son Fernando is a chavista hectically campaigning for a seat in the new Congress.

Thousands remain homeless weeks after the tragedy, their houses smashed by tons of silt, boulders, tree trunks and anything else torn away by rivers in flood during the deluge. The crowds of desplazados (displaced) wear hand-me-down-clothes collected by the Red Cross and other agencies, and are fed in makeshift emergency camps. But help is coming: President Chavez, who has shown a talent for weath-
ering adversity quite well, has a plan, states the daily El Universal, which is part of his policy to "conquer" Venezuela's south--an ambition vigorously proposed by the president long before he took office last year. The displaced--now to be called digni-
ficados--are being transported by aircraft southward and eastward out of long, narrow coastal Vargas as well as affected parts of Caracas and the nearby state of Miranda, down to the immense, underdevel-
oped southern State of Bolívar, which makes up a full quarter of Venezuela's total land mass. There they are being settled by the thousands in "regional development centres" and will be employed in the development of Bolívar at the minimum wage of 120,000 Bs a month ($1,200). Chavez's southern strategy, said El Universal, has simply been accel-
erated by the forces of nature."

(Anthony Milne < was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University ofthe West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about ev-
erything else under the sun.)

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