October 17, 2002

[it occurs to me that, especially for non-Venezuelans, the column above might not make that much sense without an…]

Explicative note on how this crazy city is organized

The municipal structure of Caracas is a daunting tangle. When my grandmother was born 90 years ago, Caracas was a town of maybe 200,000 confined to what is now known as el centro, downtown, over on the west side of the valley, in what was known as the Distrito Federal – a DC type federal entity. With the advent of oil and modernity, it grew incredibly quickly, like many third world capitals, to its current 4 million inhabittants. In the process, it spilled out of the central core, growing eastward along the valley into areas that laid outside the D.F., in Miranda State. Many towns that for centuries had been quite separate from the city were swallowed up in the sprawl – Chacao, Petare, El Hatillo. But each of those had their own municipal governments. By the 1990s, these had become neighborhoods of Caracas rather than towns of their own, leaving the broader city without a unified municipal government.

When the Constituent Assembly was convened in 1999, many proposals surfaced to bring chaos to the madness by consolidating these into a single administrative entity. But the Miranda State government didn’t like the idea one bit: the wealthy East-side Caracas neighborhoods held a huge proportion of its population and its tax base, and the governor realized it would be a disaster for the state if those were taken out of its jurisdiction. So the proposals faced serious resistance, and a compromise was eventually reached: a new Metropolitan Mayorship would be created, encompassing the East-side neighborhoods, but without dismembering Miranda State. Each of the East-side neighborhoods would retain its own municipal government, which would coexist with a Greater Caracas mayorship. The result was a municipal structure even more complicated than before: the city now has both a Metropolitan Mayor with jurisdiction over both the East and West-sides of the city, stradling both the D.F. (which, just to make things even more convoluted, had its name changed – it’s now the Distrito Capital, D.C.) and parts of Miranda State AND five local mayors. In the Eastern Districts, there are three levels of regional government: the municipal, the greater-caracas municipal, and then the state governor, whereas the Distrito Capital has no governor, so in that part, the metropolitan mayor acts as de facto governor. Confused? So’s everyone else.

The point is that whenever you hear someone say “the mayor of Caracas” you have to ask “which one?”

The thing is that unlike normal municipal governments, the Greater Caracas mayorship has no autonomous tax-raising powers at all. It relies completely on the National Government for its funding. And the Greater Caracas mayor, Alfredo Peña, is now an ardent antichavista (though, once upon a time, he sat on Chávez’ cabinet,) and has become a major bete noire for Chávez’s followers. So, not surprisingly, the National Government nickel-and-dimes Peña’s bureaucracy to no end. The municipal workers get paid verrry irregularly, if at all, and that includes Peña’s Metropolitan Police officers.