New York Post
October 05, 2006
I'D LIKE Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to meet one of his countrymen, 15-year-old Manuel Gonzalez.
Manuel, who's never been to school, lives in a tin-roofed shack with walls made of slabs of half-inch-thick wood, cardboard and flattened oil drums. His "house" clings precariously to La Vega, one of hundreds of hillside slums that dot Chavez's oil-rich capital.
Each day, Manuel lugs buckets of water or propane tanks so his pregnant mother, 12-year-old sister and 1-year-old brother can eat,bathe and flush the toilet.
"I'm scared. I don't want to live here, but I have to take care of my family," Manuel told me.
Chavez should come here, as I did, to see firsthand his country's horrific underbelly - the worsening poverty that he neglects even as he pretends to be a champion of the poor.
It'd be a better use of his time than trips abroad and to New York, where Chavez created an uproar last month by denouncing President Bush as "sick," an "alcoholic" and the "devil."
Here, it seems the devil is closer to home.
At night, Manuel's mother loops a thick chain through a hole in their shanty's thin metal door to barricade her family from murderous teen thieves who roam with impunity.
"Three kids under the age of 18 are murdered in Venezuela every day," said Fernando Pereira, a coordinator for CECODAP, a nonprofit human-rights group trying to save children.
"We don't know of any government program that exists to combat this phenomenon."
The astounding youth death rate belies the public persona Chavez exhibits whenever he comes to New York and eagerly embraces, and sometimes kisses, every little kid he sees.
Chavez recently proclaimed during a ceremony announcing a $16 million plan to rehabilitate 704 homes in a shantytown that extreme poverty has dropped from 21 to 10 percent. But critics say 50 percent of the county's 26 million inhabitants earn less than $2 a day.
Luis Pedro Espana, director of the Economic and Social Research Institute at the Andres Bello Catholic University, said poverty has remained constant since Chavez was elected president in 1998 – despite the country's oil wealth.
Only 10 percent of the work force has jobs, while 52 percent are "freelancers" - street vendors or people who sell goods from their homes, Espana said.
He complained Chavez's socialist, anti-big-business rhetoric and actions have scared off private investors, who currently support only 10 percent of the job market, compared to 25 percent in the 1970s.
"It's not just the issue of how many people are working, it's the quality of the jobs and the low wages that come with it," he said.
Take unemployed Pedro José Flores, 24, whom I met while he was fighting off buzzard-like birds and dodging bulldozers at a garbage dump, searching for metal and paper to sell.
"I have a wife and three kids I have to feed," he said. "There are no jobs out here, and you have to produce to survive."
His kids, 1, 3 and 6, will be lucky to see their 18th birthdays – and have almost no chance of a decent job if they do.
In fact, a recent study conducted by Espana's group shows fewer parents are putting their children into the elementary schools that
"There is a feeling among parents that it's just not worth sending their children to school because a high-school graduate is ill prepared to enter the work force," said Pereira.
While some, like Pereira, give Chavez credit for trying to help parents buy school supplies and combat the dropout rate, they fume that he's done little to create jobs that could absorb the 300,000 people who enter the job market every year.
"For a crisis of this magnitude, it is a shame that there hasn't been any attempt to change the system," said Pereira.
The poverty and lack of jobs have bred out-of-control crime.
Of the estimated 12,000 homicides every year, 90 percent of the victims are men between the ages of 15 and 35.
Manuel's never even been to school. His mother, Thaivis Castro, 32, thought the Chavez government would make room for her son, but they only offered him night school.
"Are you crazy? I'm not going to let my son go out at night so that he gets killed," she said.
Manuel stood a few nights ago in their kitchen, sadly using a dirty rag to wipe the sink.
"I want to go to school because I want to become a policeman when I get older," he said.
A 15-year-old who wants to work and be a productive member of society hasn't even started school yet.
Hugo, who's the devil now?