Dispatch

Little Bread, Lots of Circuses in Venezuela

As the country’s economy collapses around him, President Nicolás Maduro is building a staggeringly expensive monument to his mentor Hugo Chávez.

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CARACAS — Between the hills of the Colinas de la Rinconada, enormous earth movers are breaking ground on a monument to the glory of Chávismo. The construction crews have a tight schedule to keep: If all goes as planned, by 2016, the valley — roughly a half-hour drive from Caracas — will house a pair of state-funded baseball and soccer stadiums, boasting a combined seating capacity of over 85,000. And that’s not all.

The facility, known as the Parque Hugo Chávez, will also include a park, transit center, sports facilities, and refurbished horse racing track. “One day we will see the World Cup in Venezuela,’’ President Nicolás Maduro boasted in August while touring the project site on a bicycle (never mind that baseball is Venezuela’s national sport and soccer a distant second in popularity).

The megaproject coincides inconveniently with the country’s mounting economic morass, brought on by sinking oil prices, corruption, and the failure of economic policies that have left millions scrambling for basic necessities. It also dovetails uncomfortably with Washington’s stunning decision to reopen diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, an ironclad ally of Venezuela during the Chávez years — as well as the U.S. Congress’s decision to press for sanctions against the Maduro government in response to its deadly crackdown on protestors earlier this year.

Maduro’s big bet: A new sports park will take his countrymen’s minds off their sputtering economy. Venezuelans may not have hand soap, milk, or deodorant right now. But they’ll have their sports.

The Venezuelan government has already spent over $35 million on the project, whose overall cost is a closely guarded secret. “Our idea is to keep it simple, easy to maintain, and keep it economical,” says Simon Smithson, project manager for Rogers, Stirk, Harbour, and Partners, the British architecture firm that is designing the soccer stadium, transportation center, and park. “This is a big investment for a country whose infrastructure isn’t the best,” he adds.

Together, the stadiums will form the core of a 200-hectare park. Its roofs will be red and green like the “colors of a tribal headdress,” Smithson says. At its center will be a huge, eight-acre plaza featuring a statue of Chávez, who was known to be a rabid sports fan. Completion of one of the facilities, a 50,000-seat soccer stadium, is tentatively scheduled for the end of 2016. Its counterpart, a 35,000-seat baseball park, is slated to be ready in October 2015, just in time for the start of the season. Both goals seem overly optimistic. Constant construction delays have hampered the project.

And if similar projects around the world are any indication, the full cost of the stadiums could blow past initial estimates and run upwards of $1 billion, with the full price tag of the park, stadiums, and transportation hub coming in even higher. Not that there’s much oversight: Funding for the project comes from opaque development funds that bypass congressional approval, potentially opening it up to the graft and corruption so pervasive in Venezuela.

The government also made little effort to include Venezuelan architects in the project. Rogers, Stirk, Harbour, and Partners is a British firm led by the award-winning architect Sir Richard Rogers. The contract for the baseball stadium was assigned to Gensler, a U.S. architecture firm. Maduro’s government awarded both contracts without open bidding or contests, a fact that rankles many of Venezuela’s 28,000 architects. As it happens, Richard, whose firm built the Pompidou Center in Paris and Terminal 4 at the Madrid Airport, seems to have won the soccer stadium and park contract thanks to his ties with Chávez, whom he met in 2007 when the late president was touring London.

Ordinarily, a project like Parque Hugo Chávez would require the approval of all five boroughs that constitute Greater Caracas. But because the opposition controls four of the five boroughs, the central government opted to place it under the aegis of the one borough it controls. This means that the Greater Caracas government has, for all intents and purposes, been cut out of the project. “This kind of project can give the city an identity. It can be iconic,’’ says Omar Carnevalli, a Caracas-based sports architect. “But large parts of the population have been excluded from the consultations and planning.”

Smithson, for one, disagrees. “Socially, we are trying to be inclusive, and we’ve held lots of public meetings as part of the design process,” he says. “We are happy to deal with the concerns people have.”

But many locals say they are particularly concerned about the park’s proximity to the main thoroughfare that snakes out of Caracas to the west. The six-lane highway (eight lanes in some segments) already resembles a parking lot during rush hour as traffic slows to a crawl, and the prospect of even greater congestion is a real worry. “The park is going next to a public housing project that is slated to hold 120,000 persons,” says Zulma Bolivar, head of the Metropolitan Urban Institute, which oversees development of the city. “They haven’t studied the possible repercussions the park is going to have on public services, such as water, electricity, and garbage collection.”

These concerns, compounded by Venezuela’s stubborn economic malaise, make it difficult to understand Maduro’s gamble. Nagging shortages of basic foodstuffs remain a persistent problem. Even in places like Caracas, the sudden delivery of staple goods like sugar, coffee, or corn meal, can quickly lead to huge lines. And because of a steel and cement deficit, the government has cut back on public housing and infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, the country’s currency, the bolivar, has lost most of its value. Although the official exchange rate is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar, the black market rate is now 182. Analysts also estimate that inflation will rise to over 60 percent by the end of the year. And with oil prices dropping precipitously, the prognosis for the future is bleak: Many experts predict that inflation could hit triple digits next year as the recession deepens.

Not surprisingly, Maduro’s standing is also tanking. According to the latest Datanalisis survey, only 24.5 percent of those polled support him. More than 85 percent say the country’s situation is negative, while 71 percent believe Maduro will be recalled in 2016, three years before his term expires.

But some say Venezuela’s crisis is precisely why Maduro green-lit the “Circus Chaveximus.” David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, argues that the stadium plan is a calculated play by the president to hitch his fading political star to the still-strong legacy of Hugo Chávez, especially with next November’s parliamentary elections on the horizon.

The late president remains a constant presence in Venezuela. State television continues to broadcast reruns of Chávez’s past speeches and his visage adorns many government posters, as well as the official logo of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Maduro has attempted to portray the new park as just the latest achievement of his socialist revolution. “Chávez himself, was fond of spectacle and big projects,” Smilde explains. “Such a big project [like the stadiums] in a context of basic, fundamental problems also brings people back to the glory of the Chávez years.”

Indeed, before his death, Chávez inaugurated a number of megaprojects to showcase the success of his revolution, often taking credit even for those started by his predecessors. Finishing them has proven more difficult. According to Venezuela’s national comptroller’s 2013 annual report, 4,381 public infrastructure projects remained incomplete as of Dec. 31, 2013. A quarter of them began before 2006 and have languished due to a lack of funding, political will, corruption, or poor execution.

Caracas itself is a veritable graveyard of boondoggles. The western tower of Parque Central, South America’s tallest skyscraper, remains uninhabitable more than a decade after its top floors were razed in a 2004, despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars, and repeated government promises. A short distance from Parque Hugo Chávez sits the Las Mayas garbage collection center, which Chávez promised to move outside the city. The center, a health hazard and eyesore, remains open, even though it is located right next to a new public housing center. And the River Guira, which runs through Caracas, and which Chávez promised to clean up and make swimmable by this year, remains an open sewer.

Roberto Montoya, a 37-year old teacher in Caracas, and others fear that Parque Hugo Chávez may share a similar fate, especially as Venezuela’s economic crisis mounts. “I’m hoping that they will be able to finish it, especially the sports venues,’’ he says. “But right now I’m too busy trying to find some groceries to worry about it.”

JUAN BARRETO / AFP

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