Chávez’s Vision in the Hills

By Charles Lane, a member of the editorial page staff (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/11/07):

Soaring high above northern Venezuela’s verdant Mount Avila one day, President Hugo Chávez looked down from his helicopter and saw a city: a new, “socialist” metropolis that he would bulldoze out of the tropical forest and populate with the denizens of Caracas’s overcrowded slums. It would be a beautiful place, with shopping malls, parks, schools and enough neat four-story apartment blocks to house 100,000 people. Chávez even dreamed up a name for this utopia, Caribia. He gave the order, and construction began. Crews broke ground just over a year ago, reports The Post’s Juan Forero.

In launching this extraordinary project, which he hopes will be the first of many around Venezuela, Chávez joins a long list of rulers who have dreamed of converting nature into orderly living space for the masses. Among them are Stalin, Mao and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu — but also the more benign Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president who, back in the 1970s, thought it would be a good idea to move 5 million of his countrymen into cookie-cutter villages partly financed by the World Bank.

Like all of these men, Chávez acts on an ideology that anthropologist James C. Scott of Yale has called “high modernism.” In his brilliant 1998 book about the phenomenon, “Seeing Like a State,” Scott explored the peculiar mix of good intentions and megalomania that has driven one unchecked government after another to pursue the dream of a reconcentrated populace: “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”

Central to high modernism is an aesthetic sense that prefers straight lines and right angles to the crooked pathways and sprawling gardens of spontaneous rural development. Nyerere, for example, was determined to give his East African country a landscape dotted with symmetrical “proper” villages, like those he had seen in England.

Architecturally and ecologically unsustainable, high modernist projects always collapse of their own weight sooner or later. As Scott writes, “the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities . . . that have failed their residents.” Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union fit that assessment also, as visitors to Germany’s Eisenhuettenstadt, begun in the 1950s as Stalinstadt, can attest. Designated “the first socialist city on German soil” by East Germany’s Communists, it was plunked down next to an immense steel mill and commanded to thrive. Today, the depressed city is hemorrhaging residents.

Yet the high-modernist experiments continue — think of China’s Three Gorges Dam and the accompanying vast uprooting of villages. Fundamentally, they are not about economics. High modernism is the architecture of centralized political control. When people live scattered across the countryside or, in the case of Venezuela, clinging to the mountainsides around the capital, they’re relatively hard to govern in any fashion, let alone by authoritarian means. In government-built grids, Scott notes, they can be identified, counted, conscripted and monitored.

To be sure, high-modernist dreams are most difficult to enact where governmental power is constrained by law, political opposition and other democratic institutions. But Chávez, having done away with most checks and balances already, is working on eliminating the rest. Caribia is rising at the very moment that Chávez is attempting to win his people’s approval of constitutional “reforms” that would make him a near-dictator. It is a new city for a new order in Venezuela. Small wonder that the engineers who are helping to design the city come from Cuba and Belarus.

There is resistance from the middle-class property owners who fear that they will be displaced to make room for Chávez’s city and from the urban poor who are supposed to be sent there. Residents of Federico Quiroz, a barrio that would supply inhabitants for Caribia, mounted a street protest on July 31, the opposition newspaper El Nacional reports. The residents pointed out that their current homes are near mass transportation, supermarkets and jobs. The soil under them is indeed prone to mudslides — Chávez’s ostensible reason for the mass relocation — but they plausibly argue that the ground could be stabilized if the government spent some of its petrodollars on improving the drainage system and making other infrastructure repairs, instead of on Caribia.

But Chávez, the tribune of Venezuela’s poor, is not listening. He is thinking big. He is like previous high-modernist authoritarians, who, as Scott writes, “regarded themselves as far smarter and far-seeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were.”