Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"The United States is building a wall. We are opening our arms."

Previously I talked about "Mission Identidad" which has allowed millions of undocumented Venezuelans and Colombians to come out from the shadows. Today there appeared a good article which showed what that program means for flesh and blood human beings:

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Santiago Baron walks past a free government-run cafeteria on his way to work. Looking up at a hillside he sees concrete reinforcements being built to stop houses from tumbling under the rain.

He thinks of the thousands in his native Colombia who lose their homes in mudslides every wet season due to poor housing conditions unaddressed by the government.

And he thanks Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the firebrand socialist accused by Washington of destabilizing Latin America, for giving him and the rest of this immigrant community in eastern Caracas a better life.

Baron, 46, and his neighbors are among an estimated 3 million Colombians who in decent decades have crossed the border into oil-rich Venezuela looking for jobs and sanctuary from Colombia's 42-year-old guerrilla war.

They are getting fast-track citizenship under a program called Mission Identity and largely supporting Chavez ahead of his December re-election bid.

"Look at that!" says Baron, born near the historic Colombian port city of Cartagena, pointing at the newly paved street in front of his house and then at the concrete barriers that will make life safer for his hillside neighbors.

"How am I not going to support Chavez?"

Although precise registration figures were not available, Venezuelan political analyst Alfredo Anzola estimates between 1.8 million and 2 million Colombians are registered to vote here. This suggests they could have a big influence in a country where less than 10 million people voted in the 2004 referendum that consolidated Chavez' mandate.

"These immigrants are benefiting from the medical, nutrition and other programs offered by Chavez. So, yes, they tend to vote for him," Anzola said. "Voter registration increased by about 2 million ahead of the referendum and a big chunk of those new voters were people who did not have Venezuelan citizenship six months earlier."

The opposition accuses Chavez of padding the voter registration rolls with Colombians and other immigrants who are not legal citizens, a charge the government dismisses.

First elected in 1998, after going to jail for leading a failed coup six years earlier, Chavez has tightened his grip on power. Lawmakers loyal to him control Congress and critics say he has stacked the Supreme Court and the country's election council with his cronies.

Chavez has suggested doing away with presidential term limits. Colombian immigrants interviewed by Reuters said they will use their votes to help him stay in power.

"Single, unemployed mothers have a place to go for help here. In Colombia we had nothing like that," said Zenit Valiente, 53, who hails from Colombia's northern coast.

"That is the guarantee that Chavez is giving to the Colombians," she said. "He is giving us support in exchange for our support."

Economists argue that Chavez' subsidies, while popular, could cripple the economy when the price of oil falls.

Wilfredo Carmona, 25, got here two months ago from Colombia, where he said the war, which kills thousands every year, made it hard to find work.

"I was trained to be a diesel mechanic but there were no jobs in Colombia," he said. "Now I'm a construction worker."

Across the street from Carmona's work site is a small market where 42-year-old Freddy Berrio, from the northern Colombian province of Sucre, sells soda and snacks. He opened the business with a low-interest government loan.

"Colombia needs a leader like Chavez to end the social and political exclusion there," he said.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, popular for reducing urban crime as part of his U.S.-backed crackdown on drug-running insurgents, easily won re-election last month.

But opposition criticism that he is not spending enough on social programs could grow louder during his second term.

"People may ask more from Uribe, not just on security issues but in terms of general well being," said Cynthia Arnson, Latin America expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

Chavez is meanwhile sending a clear message to Colombians looking for something better.

"As opposed to what the United States is doing, we are giving them documents and now they have equal rights," Chavez said recently. "The United States is building a wall (to keep immigrants out). We are opening our arms."

"Colombia needs a leader like Chavez to end the social and political exclusion there,". Can't argue with that.