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.

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  1. Those areas were never supossed to be inhabited in the first place, that’s why they are the rancho-filled slums that they are today.

    But because it’s impossible to relocate every simgle person living in those places now, the only solution is to make those places livable, and perhaps the auto-ladders are a step there.

    Of course, another point on its favor is that chavismo didn’t come up with the idea, so it won’t be turned into another extortion instrument for their stupid apartheid policy.

  2. If they do it, hopefully they’ll be maintained and protected from vandalism. It’d be sad to see them in a few years turned into scrap metal.

    • I rather worry about the accidents associated with the escalators. They are really ugly.

      If they do maintain the escalator in a proper manner, then it will be out of service most of the year. Otherwise, it will soon brake down, in the worst case, …

  3. Escalators require constant maintenance, a concept that seems anathema to Venezuela. From a technical basis, it is probably a sound concept, but I am concerned about its viability in today’s Venezuela. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk.

  4. People shouldn’t be living in slums or shantytowns in the first place. Mechanic escalators for the ranchos?
    Do they even have running water or pay for electricity? What are the sanitation conditions? People should get their priorities straight.

    Those surreal escalators wouldn’t last 1 year, due to lack of maintenance and/or vandalism.

    This just sounds like just another Guiso. Where are the escalators coming from? China? Guiso. Some people want to make lots of money out of that, as usual, and then the escalators will soon go to waste, if they are even delivered or completed.. There would be a multi-million contract, and then half of the escalators would be delivered and properly installed. Then, in a couple years or less, they would be vandalized or destroyed. As usual.

    Escalators work in private shopping malls, because there is security, and maintenance. In Petare slums? Are you kidding? Hace you seen the topography there? How steep and vast, and populated they are? It would cost billions to build a few ‘escalators”, and 90% of Petare or other slums would still be without escalators. It’s a surreal idea, and does deserve criticism and even sarcasm. It’s a stupid idea. There are many other priorities, such as supermarkets with food, or health care.

  5. Statism is a hell of a drug. You can’t keep the stairways in the metro running yet you are going to get this ones running ?
    Do you know what your beloved people do to the cable cars? they use them as target practice.
    All state intervention in Venezuela is nothing but populism, all attempts of social policy are clientelism, and the simple reason is that if you are not actually trying to solve the real problems (criminality and generalized starvation), what are you trying to do solving the small ones?
    La casa esta en llamas y estos huevones estan frizando la pared.

  6. I have gone up to the ranchos several times before, and it’s not easy an task (maybe I was just out of shape. I don’t think it’d be like plastering the wall while the house is on fire. I think it’d be more like plastering the walls when there’s no sewer service or running water. So, I feel there’s a need to have an easier way for people to get to their homes. Whether it’s escalators or not, that’s something else. As I said before, lack of maintenance and vandalism would be big issues so other alternatives should probably be studied.

  7. most shopping centres have some escalators that are not working in Venezuela, it’s another disaster waiting to happen. Let’s face it the government can’t even maintain a piece of asphalt here.

  8. In normal times this kind of project seems a winner , people do have a hard time climbing those cerros and if it worked in Medellin why not here , However this is a tough time to embark on this kind of project , when people are having a hard time just feeding themselves , run away inflation is constantly hiking the costs of any job and we are all going thru a time of severe financial constraints !! Some caution may be in order..!!

    I have no doubt the project is worthwhile but have some reservations as to whether this is the best time to execute it !!

    The idea of granting the inhabitants of these cerros a property title over the land they occupy is a very good one , long overdue , makes them become more committed to striving for a better life while giving them a sense of satisfaction and entitlement over what they do to improve their homes….Father Alejandro Moreno in his study of Caracas shantyhouse lives has noted that many dismiss these peoples gift of initiative and hard work out of hand but that if they saw how hard they work to build and improve their ranchos they would have a different impression of their productive potential ….!!

    This last idea is one which deserves praise and every ones support…!!

  9. Interesting story. There are a lot of interesting things going on in Colombia that would work in Venezuela. Thanks for posting it, notwithstanding the wall of cynicism.

    • I’d add, I don’t understand the hostility in many quarters to barrios populares, or slums, and the people who live there. They are the closest modern humanity has come to the libertarian ideal.

  10. A wall of cynicism may be warranted in the escalator example. Not because of the Social Policy = Clientelism correlation but because of the proposed solution to the problem statement.

    Long term sustainment of any capital investment needs to be top of mind when championing for it. I would say in the case of opposition led political entities, “self-preserved sustainment” (I just coined that) should be the main driver of the decision making process.

    How does it help to put together a problem solving mechanism that is completely dependent on the central government’s assignment of foreign currency (or spares if procuring directly) for said problem solving mechanism to fulfill its mission after the first preventive maintenance milestone comes and goes? It doesn’t.

    Opposition public policy decision makers in Venezuela should be adding that additional element to their decision making process (Is this the best use of my limited resources AND will I be able to sustain the benefits of the investment on my own?) A “No” answer on either of those is bound to equal a large dose of cynicism.

  11. The frigging escalator has nothing to do with land/house ownership in barrios.

    There are many things to consider about the escalators, but I believe the biggest issue is opportunity cost. It’s not just about how much money Sucre municipality needs to build the damn thing, but also how much does it cost to have/operate it.

    And what about opportunity cost, a recurrent issue here? I think anyone can imagine at least half dozen better ideas that can improve the standard of living in the barrios using that money. Yes, they’d probably be less “shiny”, but they would be more cost efficient.

    The whole thing reeks of vanity project. How about focusing on less shiny, but much more essential infrastructure issues, such as water, waste water, electricity and waste management?

    • Were it not for the other developments, I would see this as a “vanity project”, as you succintly put it. Details must be made public, of course, and the Municipal chamber should be vigilant of its sustainability.

      I’m not trying to be a cheerleader for the Municipio, but my point is how relevant the political philosophy behind this is.

  12. Playing a bit being Devil’s attourney here, I’m pretty sure that a lot of people stating that auto-ladders are useless haven’t deal with the torture of living in some hillside rancho that’s about 200-800 steps from civilization, and then like one more kilometer away from any other thing.

    • I dont think they are useless… I have a bit of revulsion at the idea of making the slums more permanent by making them “better”, but well, the ship to “Erradicate the slum and builld proper housing for people” sailed long ago, so yes, you have to deal with the reality and solve the problems of the people that you can. So, as you say, it would be a solution for better lives for a lot of people.

      Thing is, I dont think that idea has a chance in 2016 Caracas. That escalator is going to be dismantled to be sold as junk in no time at all.

  13. OMG!!!i guess the cost benefit analysis was made…and if really some can’t see how this could be important to give ownership to slum dwellers…well

  14. Como plan de movilidad es bien mediocre. Como bálsamo social es un despilfarro. Como recomendación general aplicable a todos los municipios lo que deben hacer los alcaldes es ponerse los pantalones donde es y sincerar la anarquía del transporte urbano.

    Con tan sólo eso logran mejores beneficios sin prácticamente hacer ninguna inversión, el problema es que inaugurar cosas vende más que simplemente sentar a los transportistas y ponerles los puntos sobre las ies.


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