Thursday, October 23, 2003

A tale of two downtowns

Thursday 23, October 2003

I was lucky enough to get a second weekend in Rio. This time having already visited the main touristy sites, I was in less of a hurry as in July. I had time to visit Downtown Rio and watch TV. It was a rather impressive experience.

First, Downtown Rio. It is a normal downtown. Weird smells can waft to your nostrils. Some ruined down areas that could be beautifully recovered (old houses for example are still surprisingly numerous). Some “unexplainable” garbage here and there. Even a prostitute tried to follow me as I was trying to find some old houses to take a picture of them (well, you know, I was in my touristy gear). All very normal.

Downtown Caracas, as I described earlier, seems more of a war zone than anything else. If Caracas now perhaps reaches Rio in Population, it largely surpasses it in chaos and urban decrepitude. Walks in downtown Caracas are a true test of grit and stamina. Dodging the street vendors that occupy all the side walks, avoiding garbage, avoiding breathing, really tells you a lot on your physical fitness. Not to mention the rampant insecurity. And I will pass on the physical deterioration of the side walks themselves, the old buildings, and the ones prematurely aged.

Only one explanations, authorities, today or past ones have not done their job and even behaved irresponsibly towards Caracas. The Chavez contribution is to have left the informal street vendors take over the place. Why? Plain incompetence at trying to keep a minimum of order? Mercantile interests by some obscure factions? Political favors? A way to keep an army of mercenaries at hand while somewhat paid?

The truth of the matter is that if my January description of Caracas was rather harrowing, it has gotten much, much worse today. There is just no excuse for the Chavez administration, and his henchman Bernal as the mayor of Caracas Downtown District, to have let things degrade to the point where they are at.

And I am not even talking of the soaring crime rate in Caracas, where the number of people killed read more like war casualty numbers. I wonder if it is even worth while comparing the statistics between the two cities: my bet is that per capita Caracas beats Rio. But I am too depressed to check.

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