Albion Monitor /News

Venezuela Builds Anti-Guerrilla Border City

by Jose Zambrano

To stop drug-smugglers and revolutionaries
(IPS) CARACAS -- On the desolate plains along Venezuela's southwestern border, the government has built a city which it hopes will prevent incursions by Colombian guerrillas and serve as a future staging post along the route to the integration of the Andean region.

Ciudad Sucre, the name decided on in 1995, the bicentennial of the birth of independence hero Antonio Jose de Sucre, was inaugurated this week by President Rafael Caldera, although the first residents won't begin to arrive until later this month.

The first 210 families -- Venezuelan nationality is a requisite for the pioneers -- will move into their new houses as soon as the final touches are set to the provision of public services.

The new city is located in the state of Apure, some 700 kilometers southwest of Caracas and only a few kilometers from the Arauca River, which marks part of Venezuela's border with Colombia. So far, the Venezuelan government has poured at least $6 million into the project.

Colombia's guerrillas, especially the National Liberation Army (ELN), that country's second largest insurgent force, make frequent incursions into the area, which is dominated by ranching and oil activity. The region is also the "lower abdomen" of the Andean state of Tachira, the hub of flourishing highway trade between Colombia and Venezuela, partners in the Andean Community subregional bloc.

The city of Guasdualito, some 100 kilometers to the east, is the general headquarters of the Theater of Operations One, with thousands of military troops deployed to contain and combat the guerrillas, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and other criminal activities.

The government of Venezuela "is intensely concerned with defending its borders," as well as with "the economic and social development" of the area, Caldera said at the inaugural ceremony on Oct. 28.

Since his first term as president in 1969-74, Caldera, an 81-year-old independent Christian Democrat, has promoted the occupation of Venezuela's sparsely populated southern region, repeatedly referring to such efforts as "the conquest of the south."

Ciudad Sucre is the second city founded by a Venezuelan government this century. The first was Ciudad Guayana, created in 1960 near the southeastern town of San Felix to serve as an urban center for the heavy industry that has developed in that area.

"The city is pretty, but who would want to come and live here, in the middle of nowhere?"
The initial viability of Ciudad Sucre is inextricably intertwined with the planned construction of housing for 5,000 inhabitants by late 1998. But experts, local authorities, and residents and producers in the region are asking themselves what the new town's economic support base will be.

A handful of pioneer families will receive loans of around $3,000 for palm oil, cacao, and fish farming projects. And in the future, when a bridge over the Arauca River joins Venezuela and Colombia, the city will be a service center for what is expected to be a brisk flow of commercial traffic.

"Founding a new city requires a feasible support base, which permits its inhabitants to enjoy a decent standard of living," town planner Alberto Urdaneta told IPS. In the case of Ciudad Guayana, "that productive base was very clear, and thus it is vigorous today, above and beyond the errors committed in the process."

But with respect to Ciudad Sucre, "the situation is different, and its designers must explain their plans for its future development," he added.

On the other hand, Urdaneta supported the idea of "developing border areas as a priority, in order to combat instability and insecurity."

Valmore Acevedo, the head of the presidential commission for border affairs, stressed Ciudad Sucre's future role as one extreme of the projected bridge over the Arauca river that will link the highways running across the foothills of the Andes in Venezuela and Colombia.

"Eighty percent of trade between the two countries, which will soon total $3 billion a year, is carried out by heavy trucks that take 34 to 40 hours to cross the mountainous highways of the state of Tachira between Caracas and Bogota," said Acevedo.

But over the relatively flat highways of the foothills, "the trip can be made in less than 20 hours, perhaps even in as few as 14," said the rancher. "That will have a great impact on Andean integration, because the same highways will stretch all the way to Bolivia," another Andean Community member, he underlined.

Nevertheless, amid the merriment of the inaugural ceremony, Acevedo said, "The city is pretty, but who would want to come and live here, in the middle of nowhere? What we need is investment in border towns that already exist."

Santos Moncada, however, is excited because his son, who works with him on a nearby family farm, was awarded one of the 210 houses. So was 73-year-old Benigno Rodriguez, who will be the oldest inhabitant of Ciudad Sucre, and who is especially happy at having obtained an agricultural loan.

Another future resident of the new town, Vladimir Moncada, said that "everyone knows there are guerrillas, drug traffickers and criminals, but people in Israel also have to live with that." He said that since the town's new residents are poor, any irregular armed groups that might show up "won't ask for anything."

Walking through streets where the cement of the sidewalks was still fresh, Minister of Border Affairs Pompeyo Marquez tested the public services: drinking water, electricity, telephones, and sewage.

Asked about the continuity of the project when Caldera's term ends in February 1999, Marquez said "it would be a crime for the programs to be discontinued" by the new authorities.

The project enjoys the backing of the armed forces. "We're talking about the security-development relationship," said Vice-Admiral Tito Rincon, Venezuela's Defense Minister.

General Enrique Medina, the chief of Theater of Operations One, cited the "convergence of drug trafficking, guerrillas and extortion in the area, a set of problems difficult to combat with only military measures."

In contrast to barracks far from border areas, the National Guard outpost in Ciudad Sucre has been fitted with bullet-proof windows. While many see the idea of the new city as a base for social development, the immediate challenges facing it could prove more destructive.

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Albion Monitor November 3, 1997 (

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