Despite the best efforts of Hugo Chavez, it seems the threat of a US invasion is not the number-one concern of Venezuelans these days.
Rather it is fear of violent crime. And Chavez’s failure to deal with it may be a factor in Sunday’s regional elections in Venezuela.
In Caracas, the vast majority of people live in fear of being victimized, pollsters and criminologists say.
Fifty-six percent of those recently polled by Datanalisis, a Caracas polling firm, said crime was their top concern, ahead of inflation and economic problems. And a poll by a well-known sociologist who studies crime, Roberto Briceño-León, showed that 64 percent feared being attacked in the streets.
Juan Forero of The Washington Post spoke with Miriam Sánchez, a resident of a Caracas slum. Unbelievably and horribly, four of her sons have been shot dead– three since Chavez took office in 1999.
Although previously a supporter of Chavez, she is now considering voting against his candidates in the election.
Though she acknowledges improvements spurred by the government’s generous social spending, Sánchez said she has little confidence that the streets will be getting safer anytime soon.
“I get angry because I feel that Chávez is the one to blame for everything that is happening because he is not watching out for Caracas,” she said. “He should be watching more television to see how much crime there is and all the killings there are.”
Forero reports that “for three years now, the government has kept homicide statistics secret, although the data are made public by crime research organizations and criminologists who receive the information surreptitiously from law enforcement sources.”
Venezuela was hardly a murder-free paradise before Chavez came to power. But in 1998, the last year before he became president, the murder rate stood at 19 per 100,000. By 2007 it had soared to 48. In that same year, in the ultra-violent United States of some Europeans’ imagination, the murder rate was 5.6– still too high, of course.
Is it unfair to compare Venezuela’s murder rate to that of the United States? Absolutely. So let’s compare it to another South American country with a reputation for unbridled violent crime– namely Brazil.
Over approximately the same period, Brazil’s homicide rate has held reasonably steady at between 25 and 30 per 100,000, and has declined somewhat. In Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, homicides have declined sharply and in 2005 were actually below the national rate.
According to a report in The Economist, the drop is due largely to stricter gun control, better policing and changing demographics.
Forero reports Venezuela’s capital and largest city has an astounding murder rate of 130 per 100,000.
In Caracas, perhaps the biggest problem is the police, who are considered ineffective and brutal and sometimes are directly involved in crime. Concern over police prompted the government, under Interior Minister Jesse Chacón, to establish a commission to reform the police in 2006.
The commission, which included representatives of the business community, criminologists, neighborhood representatives and officials from the judicial sector, issued a report that highlighted police corruption and proposed reforms. But crime experts here said the findings were ignored after Chacón, who had championed the commission, was replaced as minister by Pedro Carreño in January 2007.
Instead, the government approved a law that will merge police departments into one national force under a central command.
So Chavez has been in power nearly 10 years. Thanks to (until recently) record oil prices, he has had huge amounts of money to deal with what is clearly a national crisis. Why hasn’t he?