Economic chaos infiltrating Venezuela's 'socialist cities' built by Chavez for the poor

Drive down a road lined with trash fires, past an improvised slum where sewage runs between shacks and through an army checkpoint, and you'll reach a startling destination: a gleaming, self-contained community about as clean and orderly as a U.S. suburb.

Welcome to the Socialist City of Hugo Chavez, a utopian community of 15,000 in the middle of one of the world's most economically ravaged countries.

A flagship of the socialist revolution founded by its namesake, the late president, Chavez City is a happy place, boasting free clinics, schools, sports centers, community gardens, an arts center and a school supplies dispensary, all of them plastered with renderings of Chavez in his signature red beret.

But in a sign of how profoundly Chavez's revolution is struggling, the tranquil days in this worker's paradise may be numbered. Venezuela can't find the dollars to pay for vitally needed goods languishing in its ports, much less afford the largesse that funded Chavez City and other marquee projects that dramatically improved life for Venezuelans once trapped in isolated slums.

For now, residents still go about their daily routines with sleepy smiles, enjoying not only free housing, but other perks ranging from state-organized block parties to subsidized taxi rides.

"This must be one of the most beautiful cities in the whole world," said Dallana Alvarado, who works in the schools here and sometimes goes months between visits to the outside world.

High-ranking officials trailed by state television cameras visit these buildings as often as repairmen.

"The marvelous dream of our Commander Chavez is alive and well here; his theories have become a reality," President Nicolas Maduro said as he drove a bus through the coastal city last year.

Each of the identical squat 144 stucco-and-brick blocks seems to hum with activity. Barbers-in-training gave out free haircuts on a recent weekday as neighbors strung decorations across the courtyard. Excited 3-year-olds in matching red shirts troop into the sun-drenched preschools every morning, where they learn the basics of reading and are served hot meals.

The city is special in another way, too: Ninety-five percent of voters here supported the socialists in legislative elections last December. That's more than double what the party was able to muster nationwide as Venezuelans punished Maduro for a collapsing economy marked by widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation, as well as soaring crime rates.

The newly ascendant opposition, having previously shown little interest in programs for the poor, has vowed to outshine the socialists on their home turf.

After winning a congressional election for first time in 17 years, the opposition is floating as one of its first proposals an initiative that would give public housing residents something that even Chavez denied them: titles to their homes, allowing them to sell and accumulate capital.

Julio Borges, the opposition congressman pushing that proposal, said it would allow the poor to save for their future and stand on their own, "ensuring we are a nation of citizens, not slaves."

Grappling with a housing shortage of more than 2 million units, the government says it has built a million new homes, many in "socialist cities" of which Chavez City is just the largest. Some, built by China, Belarus and other allies, are riddled with infrastructure problems and crime, while others seem to be functioning.

While Chavez City residents don't see themselves as beholden to the government, they aren't exactly climbing into the middle class. Many say they love the city because it allowed them to give up the house cleaning or street vendor jobs they hated. The smooth roads and ample parking lots are empty, as few people can afford cars.

"I'm catching up on 25 years of rest," said Yomilady Segovia, who dropped out of fourth grade to help support her family and spent the next two decades selling coffee and empanadas in a municipal slaughterhouse.

When she got to Chavez City, her favorite thing to do was look out the window at the rain. She and her eight siblings grew up on the banks of a river that would periodically overflow and send them scrambling for safety in higher ground as it washed away their shacks.

"I still can't get over the idea of having to open the blinds to check the weather," she said.

Like many residents, Segovia is used to plenty of attention from weekly reality-TV segments that give hope to those still struggling in the slums.

When she was selected to move to Chavez City, the governor delivered the news himself, surprising her on camera as she drank her morning coffee. He personally carried her young son into her new, completely furnished apartment. A year later, she still cries recalling the joy of that day

The government, she is certain, will find a way to keep the outside tumult from threatening her life here.

"Chavez City is my future and my children's future," she said.

But the economic chaos engulfing the country is beginning to intrude. Teachers say residents of a nearby shantytown broke in and stole all the toilet handles from the cultural center, presumably to sell for scrap metal; children who come to sing folk songs with a staff of Cuban teachers can no longer use the bathroom there.

People from surrounding communities have begun to make hours-long trips to buy goods like coffee, milk and cooking oil for less than a penny each at the Chavez City supermarket, which does not suffer from the long lines and empty shelves of most state-run groceries.

And the checkpoint at the city gates has seen waves of protests as everyone from the construction workers who built the development to young mothers who can't afford soaring rents in nearby cities clamor for a spot inside. Even the principals and doctors who work here are looking for a way in.

Some of the angriest petitioners are right on the other side of the city fence, living amid piles of trash and swarms of mosquitoes as they wait for their homes.

The government has been trying for months to demolish their decade-old slum, only to have residents rebuild their shacks overnight from the rubble the government bulldozers leave behind.

Maryorie Celis, 33, lay with her two sons on muddy cots on a sweltering day as her neighbors picked what they could from the rubble left by the bulldozers.

As usual, the talk was of the brilliant white development next door. Some here have lost patience, and say in hushed tones that they voted for the opposition for the first time this December.

But many are still telling their children they'll soon be spending their days in the new playgrounds next door.

"We watched them build it for four years, full of hope," Celis said, clutching a certificate from 2014 showing that she'd completed a civic responsibility course required for residents of public housing. "I know my keys are waiting for me."

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