The Miami Herald
August 5, 2001

 Chávez assailed on handling of Venezuelan flood disaster

 Critics blame him for refusing U.S. help and say his government squandered relief aid.


 CARMEN DE URIA, Venezuela -- Venezuelans now call it ``La Tragedia.''

 Soggy mountainsides broke loose and washed entire villages out to sea. House-size boulders tore through walls and shredded apartment buildings. Entire homes and
 large trucks floated for hundreds of yards, carried by mud rivers that destroyed everything in their path.

 A year-and-a-half after the mudslides ravaged Venezuela's coast and killed between 5,000 and 25,000 people, according to various official estimates, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is being sharply criticized for the way he handled the deadliest disaster in his country's history.

 Survivors and opposition politicians have denounced Chávez's decision to refuse U.S. help in rebuilding a critical highway that runs along the coastline, a road that
 remains in poor condition with potholes and unpaved stretches.

 The highway runs through the small seaside state of Vargas just north of Caracas, home to 650,000 people and Venezuela's international airport and seaport.

 Last month, the International Red Cross, which has aided in the recovery, charged that Chávez's government has squandered millions of dollars in relief aid in an effort to relocate survivors to remote areas.

 And many of the devastated region's poorest people -- whose support helped to sweep the president into office in 1998 -- say Chávez has abandoned them out of
 misplaced pride.

 ``If [Chávez] had accepted help from the United States, then this would all have been fixed already. But thanks to that decision, nothing has been fixed. It's embarrassing what happened,'' said Louisa Pertiñez, 65, who lost an apartment during the mudslides. ``It is a crime that thousands of people lost a meal, lost medicine, lost help, because our president is friends with Fidel Castro.''

 Opposition politicians have attacked Chávez's handling of the floods, criticizing his refusal of U.S. help and even suggesting that people in his government are stealing
 international relief money.


 ``[Declining U.S. assistance] was an absurd decision by an inept government that hurt thousands of citizens. There was no thought for the well-being of the people,'' said César Pérez Vivas, one of 64 opposition members in Venezuela's 165-person National Assembly, pointing out that 30,000 people in Vargas are still homeless.

 ``The question on everybody's mind is, `Where is the money being spent?,' '' Pérez Vivas said, adding that opposition politicians are in the midst of a flood-money graft investigation.

 ``Chávez isn't answering that question. The only people who have benefited from help have been friends and family of the government who have been given contracts to rebuild. There is an absolute absence of transparency.''

 Venezuela's government denies that any relief money is missing, and insists that it is making the best of a difficult situation.

 ``The government is not stealing. Chávez waves the flag of anti-corruption. We have done a great deal of good in the areas of the tragedy. We have provided security, made services like electricity and telephones work again, and avoided the major health problems and plagues that can happen,'' said Fermín Lares, the press counselor at Venezuela's mission in Washington.

 Lares said that Chávez did not reject U.S. help for political reasons. Rather, ``Venezuela had the means to fix the highway by itself,'' Lares said of the coastal road. He added that the mud has been bulldozed from the road and that collapsed sections and bridges have been rebuilt.

 ``It is completely passable,'' Lares said.


 Moreover, the United States did provide help for Venezuela -- U.S. troops flew helicopter rescues and worked to provide pure water, Lares said.

 But today, at the once-bustling fishing village of Carmen de Uria, 60 miles east of Caracas, only a Pompeii-like ghost town remains, and thousands of bodies remain
 entombed in the sand. Nearby, national guardsmen stand watch over a section of the four-lane highway that has been reduced in some small, remote stretches to a
 one-lane dirt road.

 Many claim the road would have been fixed already had Chávez not refused the help of two U.S. Navy ships that were on their way to Venezuela soon after the floods, carrying bulldozers, asphalt-laying machines and 450 Marine and Navy service personnel.

 Chávez, who often speaks of a need to reduce U.S. hegemony, said immediately after the floods that he would accept American equipment if Venezuelan soldiers
 operated it, but that he did not want U.S. troops in his country.


 Because of his comments, the U.S. ships -- and the help on board -- never came. Many flood victims say their needs took a back seat to politics and have still not been addressed.

 ``Whoever said we don't need help is stupid,'' said José Martínez Padrón, 41, a homeless painter who says 22 of his relatives were killed when mud buried most of
 Carmen de Uria.

 Martínez spends his days sweeping the floor of the town's fallen church. Part of the roof is gone, and rain falls on the church's concrete floor, a marble altar and a four-foot figure of Jesus, which is missing its right arm.

 ``Chávez doesn't want to help us at all,'' Martínez said. ``The government hasn't done anything. We are living like soldiers, outside, defending ourselves.''

 Chávez has also received criticism from the Red Cross, which said his multimillion-dollar plan to relocate mudslide survivors to new houses in remote areas has done
 more harm than good.

 In its annual report on global devastation of floods and famines issued last month, the Red Cross said the transplanted people could not find work, and many have moved back to Vargas state -- and the ruined houses they left behind.

                                    © 2001