Photo: Paula Vásquez Lezama
Around five days after the landslide that took part in Northen Venezuela on December 15th, 1999, I was packing with my mother a box with tuna, milk and sardines to bring to the collection center in my school in Mérida, in the Venezuelan Andes. I didn’t even know where Vargas state was. To me, it was like they were talking about a remote place, where something terrible had happened and everyone had to help. It was as if it had happened in Nicaragua or Nepal.
Merida, by then, was prosperous and calm, a functional city. Its culture was about the university, the Catholic Church, agriculture and the real estate market. There seemed to be enough to live and work. It was safe and its dynamic was peaceful and conservative, isolated from the chaos in Caracas and far from the poverty that surrounded big oil cities. Hugo Chávez was a mere whisper on the radio, who started getting louder after the tragedy.
Before the refugees, came the rumors.
Before the refugees, came the rumors. The first one, that a C-130 Hercules plane would land in the city airport, full of orphans, lost children who would need a new home with people willing to adopt them. And even though the story was publicly denied, many took it as a slogan they repeated to recruit volunteers. The whole city mobilized for the cause: there was enough food to welcome them, also medicine and healthcare, education and families. Committees and meetings were held between NGOs and the opposition-led local government. But things changed a lot when the soldiers appeared.
The Militarization of Disgrace
Chávez had promised everyone who had lost a home in Vargas that they’d be reasigned in 2000. And that will be coordinated by the same “civic-military” apparatus that had taken them away from the disaster zone in combat helicopters and ships and had taken them to military headquarters or Navy bases in Vargas or Puerto Cabello. It was also a government where many supported the old idea that poverty had to do with the fact that the Venezuelan population is unequally distributed across our territory (too many people by the coast while the plains or rainforests are unpopulated), and saw the perfect occasion to put their theories in practice. Homeless and having lost everything, absolutely vulnerable, these people were to be moved to wherever the State decided. What these people really wanted to do, like staying near the area where they had come from or go back to Vargas, didn’t matter.
The first Vargas families to get to Merida came around December 19th – 20th. Some of them by their own means, because they had families or friends in the city. But the larger refugee group was taken there under military orders to two base camps: the Camping, a place for tourism in San Javier del Valle, on the way to La Culata, and the Conscriptos military garrison, in San Jacinto. Other families were assigned to a couple of shelters in the beginning.
The first obstacle was when the local Acción Democrática coalition government, the Church and NGOs stood up to the military that had been tasked with civilian matters like health and food distribution. It generated an imbalance in the assistance operation: these refugees had to thread carefully between overcompensating, competitive and unprepared volunteers and the military regime imposed in the camps, especially in Conscriptos, where women and men were separated and free transit and social activities were limited, while the refugees were assigned with tasks according to their gender, cleaning, and maintenance.
At Camping, things were a little different since they allowed families to stay together and the military presence wasn’t so determining, even though they were isolated from the local population without opportunities for integration, during at least three months. They were trapped in a foreign territory, form the Caribbean coast to the Andes mountains, with quite different weather, and under strict military surveillance.
When they started talking about relocating the refugees, rumors flew again across the towns or slums where they would be taken. Now, the locals were suspicious and intimidated by their arrival.
In Tovar, the mayorship and the Church produced a cultural event in January to welcome the new inhabitants, but the troops didn’t take them there and the neighbors were left waiting. Two months later, the military emptied the shelters in Merida and took the displaced to their new homes in Tovar. Most of the apartments weren’t ready, had no electricity or water. They gave them some furniture and food and told them that in a couple of months people from the town would move into the buildings.
José Reyes, who got to Merida from La Guaira with his wife and two children, was assigned an apartment in Chama II, a poor area near the city. He didn’t have such a hard time adapting because it wasn’t in a rural area. Since he was a good handyman and carpenter he got a job in different schools within the education zone where he enrolled his children. “I don’t know how we survived yet,” he says today from Merida, where he’s still living. “The night of the tragedy, when I saw the water coming from the mountains, I grabbed my wife and my kids to go to the courts in our community. I don’t know how we made it alive, we were wearing shorts and sandals.”
The months after the resettlement, Chávez’s government took control of the resources, donations and humanitarian aid distribution, canceling or limiting the actions of independent assistance committees. He took advantage of the situation to promote his recently created Bolivarian Combo – two kilos of flour, a kilo of rice, a jar of mayonnaise, a liter of oil and two cans of sardines- , and decreed a quick job program where beneficiaries got direct subsidies from the state while they got jobs, mostly in public institutions. Many of them ended up being construction workers, handymen, security, assistants and janitors in public offices. Some people who couldn’t find work started working informal jobs or went back to the coast.
The Survivor Stigma
That initial contention response vanished, no institutional follow-through.
Then, discrimination started. Suddenly, in people’s minds, the damnificados weren’t people in need of urgent help, but looters, rapists, drug addicts, prostitutes and murderers who had come to wreak havoc in a calm, Catholic city. They hadn’t even left the shelters when they were already guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. You’d hear on the radio how women dressed, how men talked. The neighbors spoke about it, teachers in schools too. Racism and distrust by many Andeans who didn’t tolerate darker people from the Caribbean slowly contaminated the general interaction with Varguenses living among us. The prejudice was such that when crime rose in Merida in the following years, as it did in the entire country, the people to blame were the homeless families that had arrived in December 1999.
They had suffered a double loss: what remain buried under the soil brought by the landslides and many of their freedoms, taken from them by the State.
Many people who wanted to forge their own paths, when they went looking for jobs, were told “go ask Chávez for a job”. In local unions they opposed hiring Varguenses for companies and stores. The collective superstition was that they brought bad luck, as if the invisible tragedy that had brought them there was still looming over them.
The results of this forced migration are unequal, at the very least. Many returned to Vargas to try to find traces of their old lives. Others even left urban developments in other parts of the country to live in Caracas shelters for years, which were considered residences in the 2011 National Census. Misión Vivienda buildings were in part occupied by people who lived for years in sports courts, military facilities, expropriated hotels, that provisional city that obeyed the all-deciding State and small caudillos who created a way of living from other people’s chronic vulnerability.
They had suffered a double loss: what remain buried under the soil brought by the landslides and many of their freedoms, taken from them by the State. They weren’t allowed to express themselves, grieve for their loss, healthily adapt to the culture that received them, pick their own home, job, go back to the kind of work they used to do. After the landslide, chavismo rehearsed political and military tactics that it keeps implementing today, using emergencies as opportunities to broaden their control over a population that, according to the State, doesn’t deserve to heal: they’re only allowed to follow orders.
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