The Medellín Option

When Carlos Ocariz proposed an ambitious new transport scheme for his municipio, his announcement was met with a wall of cynicism. How did this corrosive sense all social policy is clientelism become enshrined?

Adapted from an original translated by Javier Liendo

Carlos Ocariz, the Mayor of the eastern Caracas municipio that includes the sprawling Petare shatytown, has announced his Municipal government will build a system of escalators to replace the old and trodden escalinatas between Petare Sur and Palo Verde, near the heart of the borough.

Escalators are a common sight in Caracas malls and subway stations; after all the first modern wooden escalators in the country were installed in the Pasaje Zingg building, in downtown Caracas, back in the 1950s. But, escalators in an outdoors public place and on such a large scale are the kind of project one would associate with the Moscow underground or those newfangled developments of Chinese capitalism.

Surely, no one could picture that in our country, let alone in Petare, on in any public work maintained by the state, where broken down and dirty stairways are usually all that remains of once futuristic barrio refurbishment plans. A plan for escalators in Petare sounds more the kind of grandiose and wasteful boondoggle of oil-fueled plenty.

As it happens, the news item announcing it met a wall of cynicism. This in itself is newsworthy, and troubling: to even plan to upgrade urban infrastructure for the shantytowns of Sucre Municipality is to invite outright derision, as if the announcement had been concocted as satire.  

Not everything is “populism” or “socialism.” That’s not the issue here.

Some, understandably, resent the perceived favoritism local government shower on these areas, as they compare it with the decay of traditionally urbanized middle-class neighborhoods. There is also a natural current of skepticism towards the State’s social policy, at any level, because we’ve grown used to clientelism, and have come to mistrust any sort of programmatic spending liable to be twisted to support given political programs.

But not everything is “populism” or “socialism.” That’s not the issue here.

The Mayor’s office, and now the Municipal Council are pushing public policies that remind me of the measures to “regularize the slums” in the 60s – 80s, with the cutting-edge ideas of urban design and transformation. The Medellín intervention is the poster child for these kinds of policies. The idea is not only to make these spaces, which are inhabited by millions of our fellow citizens, livable with the help of urban design, engineering, and the private sector (not “more livable,” but livable, period, because currently they simply are not). The idea is to have vertical gyms, public libraries, transformed walkways and access roads, community markets, etc. A vast literature sets forth the rationale for these efforts.

That’s the context for this announcement: Petare’s escalators is proposed in the spirit of the cable cars in San Agustín in Caracas, both inspired by Medellín funiculars (first proposed in Venezuela, incidentally, by Henrique Salas Römer, all the way back to 1998). But the project is essentially different to the urban transportation policies and the Urban Land Committees advanced by the Bolivarian revolution (which deserve their own commentary).

Property recognition makes them owners, and owners will stand up for what’s theirs: that beautiful foundation of citizenship as expressed by good old Aristotle.

What sets apart Municipio Sucre’s efforts from prior policies is the ongoing initiative to formalize property ownership of land that hasn’t been on the real estate market for decades, and that have thus been unable to sustain capital despite the huge effort and substantial sums of money that have been spent on them by the families that inhabit them.

Families that, for generations, have been allocating part of their small income to improving their homes, little by little, and are then left unprotected by the law because they don’t formally own their land. This change is one of the most audacious and radical policy proposals of recent times. Property recognition not just for partisans of the municipal government, but for everyone in the barrio. It makes them owners, and owners will stand up for what’s theirs: that beautiful foundation of citizenship as expressed by good old Aristotle.

The policy is not meant to substitute for a public housing policy or to prevent urbanization later on. It’s not about rejecting modern urbanism. It’s about empowering spontaneous dwellings and freeing people. If liberty in a republic is the liberty from domination, this is one step along the path to protecting and expanding the power of the incipient citizenship of millions of individuals and families.

Do slums have problems? Do families in slums have problems? Think about how much of that depends on the structure of property. Think about whether or not they will be better off with this change; think about how this will improve the lives of our fellow citizens in Caracas. And the same in Valencia, in Maracaibo, in Barquisimeto, in Barcelona, in Ciudad Guayana.

It’s the kind of policy that, unlike revolutionary cynicism or distant technocracy, gives value to the vocation of politics as a promoter of social harmony (the peace and concord of yore), even if petty partisan grudges keep us from seeing it sometimes.

It’s the first step for many more changes. Or if you prefer, el primer escalón.