Sunday, May 11, 2003

STREET KIDS
May 11, 2003

Among the spectacular failures of Chavez there is one that shines high: the handling of street kids. This problem is of course endemic in the world and local authorities have diverse programs that deal more or less with the situation, usually less. The presence of street kids is not necessarily the fault of public policies. Social programs cannot foretell all human failures at family level. They are thus mostly targeted at dealing with the consequences of the social break down that dissolved the family unit.

In Venezuela, things are a little bit different. The macho mentality here has a long tradition of leaving unwed mothers and not all of them make it. This mothers might end up in the street with the kid, and eventually the kid might as well decide to strike it on his or her own. Recent numbers published by El Universal today are not very encouraging as to the possibility of things getting better on this front. For Mother’s day the paper publishes the 2001 births numbers.

Total births = 529 552
Births from married women = 146 506
Births from unmarried women but within a family unit = 264 446
Births of unwed women = 108 330

In other words 20,5 % of births in Venezuela in 2001 were without a recognized father.

Ah! And the age of the mothers! 28 758 births are from unwed women that are less than 19 years old. That is, 5,4 % of births in 2001 were to mothers that likely have not finished high school and that will depend on relatives to be able to raise their kid. I think these numbers are quite staggering and point out to a dark future for the births in that 5,4 % group. To this we can add the 11,3 % of births of women less than 19 year old but living with somebody albeit unwed. The odds that many of these women will end up abandoned by their mate are not insignificant.

Of course the prevailing misery and social habits were inherited by Chavez. However, it is fair to discuss what he has done about it. Early in his term, Chavez made a famous discourse, which excerpts are profusely replayed these days. In this speech, he said among other inanities that if within a year there were still street kids he will stop calling himself Hugo Chavez. At the time this created quite a buzz and plenty of initiatives, even at the local level. I was involved by accident with one of these activities in San Felipe while I hosted a friend working with street kids in the US. She gave a seminar, got newspaper interviews, held meetings with me as the translator.

Among some initiatives two big projects came directly from Miraflores Palace. One was the recovery of a big resort abandoned on the Caracas shoreline: Los Caracas. That resort was created 50 years ago as an affordable alternative to the bureaucratic middle class. It pretty much was neglected through the years until it had to be basically abandoned. The idea was to create a special school, away from Caracas, to rehabilitate street kids. Some work started but the deluge of 1999 cut off the road for a few weeks and the project was just shelved. Another project was the recovery of another structure from the 50ies that had been abandoned in Caracas: El Helicoide, a spiral shaped commercial center that was never completed and ended up as a white elephant smack in downtown Caracas. Nobody knows why, but the restoration work was transferred to the political police DISIP and that was that. Now several “dissidents” have had to spend a night at “El Helicoide”, but no street kids that we know off.

During these years it is fair to say that the economic situation has not helped this initiative of Chavez, even though he can be blamed for the sluggish economy. The problem is that he put his name over this initiative like he did not do on anything else. Yet, he has just ignored it even though it was not the most expensive of the social programs.

If you go now downtown Caracas you will be able to see more street kids than ever, scavenging garbage, panhandling, looking for something to snatch. Heartbreaking. And it is made worse with the spectacular growth of an informal commercial economy. This growth of a survival economy due to the collapse of the formal system has littered the main avenues of Caracas with temporary stands and shacks that, of course, provide an ideal hideout for all sorts of thieves, druggies and street kids.

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