Moderator’s note: This is the first of a series of notes from the field that Rebecca Hanson will be posting. The goal is to provide a feel for the dilemmas and problems faced by residents of the popular barrio where she is doing fieldwork, and a sense of their perspectives and practices in dealing with them. All particular names have been changed to pseudonyms.
A few weeks ago, I came upon a group of my neighbors sitting on the stairs outside one of their homes, discussing a shooting that had just taken place a few blocks away. Yosibel a 20-year-old university student, was coming up from the subway around 7:30 pm and had seen a man being taken to the hospital by police after having been shot in the throat. According to what other bystanders told her, the man was shot for the dog he had with him, which the shooter grabbed before taking off on his motorcycle. After discussing the shooting, people turned to the upcoming elections. Everyone started laughing and clapping in support when one of my neighbors joked that I had come to Venezuela from the US to vote for Chávez.
Analysts frequently point to the explosion of crime and violence in Venezuela as one of the most important issues for the October presidential elections. This makes sense, as opinion polls show that “la inseguridad” tops the list of citizen concerns by a wide margin. Indeed, in a recent poll Venezuelans topped the regional list for perceptions of insecurity, with only 34% of Venezuelans reporting that they feel safe where they live . The rate of violent crime in Catia, the massive group of working-class barrios West of downtown Caracas where I currently live and do fieldwork, has indeed risen over the past decade. However, as suggested by this ethnographic sketch, the relationship between increasing crime rates and my neighbors’ evaluation of the Chávez administration is not a direct one. Here, I would like to discuss a few ways in which my neighbors talk about their local experiences with violent crime, and how these discussions frame the president’s responsibility to ameliorate it.
Violence is a problem “entre los malandros”
Though crime ranks #1 when Venezuelans list their concerns to pollsters this does not necessarily mean that all barrio residents feel that their lives and communities are utterly saturated by violence at all times. Rather, violence is frequently circumscribed. For example, one of my neighbors recently told me that the section of the neighborhood where we live used to be more dangerous. When I asked her what changed she replied: “These kinds of things happen to malandros (thugs), between themselves (entre ellos). We had problems with malandros on this street a few years ago but they killed each other off and the ones that are left leave us alone.” Here, my neighbor does not frame violent crime as enveloping her entire community but as occurring between malandros, a consequence of their lifestyle. Barrio residents are affected by violent crime; nevertheless, they often discuss criminals, not themselves, as the subjects of that violence.
Ineffective policing is the result of institutional corruption
Residents of Catia also relate the problem of ineffective policing to a history of long-term institutional corruption. Perhaps the conclusion drawn by a taxi driver best sums it up: “The problem in Venezuela is not la delincuencia, since you can find that anywhere you go. The problem is corruption.” Indeed, when residents here refer to the police, they often refer to the infamous cases of kidnapping and murder in which the now disbanded Policia Metoropolitana (who were replaced by the Policia Nacional Bolivariana but policed Caracas from 1969-2011) were involved. Given their recognition of long-standing police corruption, people in my neighborhood do not necessarily look to “the state” in this sense to protect them.
The problem starts in the home
When the police are brought up in conversation, the sentiment that they “don’t do anything” is almost a taken for granted assumption. However, residents in my neighborhood do think something can be done about crime. Indeed, there is a strong tendency among residents to suggest that el hogar (the home) is the root of crime and violence. This came up at a child’s birthday party I recently attended when a few neighbors discussed a shooting that had occurred over the weekend, leaving one man dead. Some of the women at the party mentioned that the mother of the man killed had allowed her son to sell drugs out of her home, and turned a deaf ear when people told her what her son was up to. This perspective, rather than blaming the police for not being around or the government for not protecting its citizens, holds the home environment accountable for crime.
Chávez is dealing with the root of the problem
Since el hogar is understood as the root of crime, many barrio residents see the Chávez government’s initiatives as addressing that root as best it can. As an example, last week I went shopping with my neighbor Natalia. Afterwards, we sat down to drink coffee at the new socialist cafeteria opened by the government in a nearby plaza. While recovering from the shopping venture I asked Natalia about la inseguridad. She replied that Chávez, by offering housing, education and sports missions, was dealing with “the root” of the problem: poverty and a lack of “cultura and conciencia.” This common sense understanding—that poverty is the main cause of violence—is as popular in Venezuela as it is in other countries. From Natalia’s perspective the Chávez government’s strategy— attacking poverty with housing and promoting “conciencia” with education missions—addresses violent crime at its source.
Barrio residents are, as polls suggest, concerned with violent crime. However, the perceptions above frame the President’s ability to impact crime as constrained—by a history of longstanding political and police corruption, a lack of access to education and basic resources, and perceived shortcomings of the home.
What about those who do expect the President to directly impact crime? For them, Capriles might not necessarily offer a convincing alternative. Though he has only carried one term as the Governor of Estado Mirando, the state (which contains Petare, the most populous barrio in the country) was ranked as the 10th most violent sub-national region in the worldParaphrasing my landlady: If And, from my landlady’s point of view, his previous security record does little to help him in this regard. It is worth bearing in mind that critiques of Chávez’s security record do not automatically add up to points in Capriles’ corner. Most of my neighbors, Chavistas and opposition supporters alike, largely recount political history in the 1990s as a time when politicians were the only ones that benefited from government plans. Capriles needs to be able to convince barrio residents that he does not represent a return to that history; in other words, he needs to show that he can follow through with his campaign plans.