Carrying 10 tons of rice, bottled water and powdered milk for flood victims, an Argentine air force Hercules cargo plane descended last week toward a Venezuelan coastline that looked scenic and peaceful from a distance.
But then the Argentine crew members crowded into the cockpit spotted signs of the devastation wreaked by floods: The hillsides bore giant scars left by avalanches; the waters off the beaches were a startling brown.
“Look at all that mud,” one airman muttered. “This place has been torn apart.”
Maj. Pablo Megassini landed the lumbering Hercules on a runway filled with military aircraft from many nations: Peru, the Netherlands, China, Cuba, the United States. The 21 Argentines on board joined a multinational force aiding an estimated 400,000 Venezuelans affected by the disaster that began more than two weeks ago.
The world has begun to recognize the dimensions of the destruction in Venezuela. The nation’s civil defense authorities estimate the death toll at 30,000; a top Red Cross official told reporters that the figure could reach 50,000.
So the challenge to President Hugo Chavez could not be greater. In addition to the massive effort to resettle more than 150,000 homeless refugees and rebuild entire towns, the government faces another test: showing that it can honestly and efficiently use millions of dollars in aid flowing in from governments and donors.
Alluding to cases in the past in which officials in Venezuela and other Latin American nations were accused of stealing disaster relief funds, Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel has pledged that “not a single dollar will be wasted” of cash donations, estimated at more than $35 million so far.
The stakes are especially high for the Chavez government because the president’s image of personal honesty is at the core of his enormous popularity.
Chavez’s populist mystique grows largely out of his passionate condemnation of political and economic elites who pillaged and squandered billions of dollars of Venezuela’s oil wealth during the last four decades. Among reforms in a recently approved constitution is the creation of a “moral branch” of government intended as a watchdog to root out endemic corruption among politicians, the judiciary and other agencies.
Signs of fraud or waste in the handling of relief money could cause a political disaster compounding the natural one, and finally dent Chavez’s armor.
The president’s opponents in the media, church and financial elite will subject his leadership of the recovery process to intense scrutiny. Even if no scandals arise, the president must show that he can use the resources wisely and adapt his freewheeling, combative style to a job that calls for managerial efficiency.
Already, critics blame the tragedy partly on the Chavez administration’s political obsessions. They say the government held off on declaring a national emergency as the rains intensified Dec. 15 because Chavez was preoccupied with the referendum vote that day ratifying the new constitution.
Chavez angrily denies the allegation, saying he should be “put before a firing squad” if he had any responsibility.
Latent political tensions have not visibly affected the issue of disaster aid. Despite the United States’ concern about the authoritarian potential of Chavez’s regime and his closeness to Cuban President Fidel Castro, the U.S. has been among the most generous donors, reaffirming a traditionally close relationship with Venezuela. The Clinton administration has pledged about $25 million worth of military and humanitarian assistance, including the deployment of nine helicopters and a C-5 cargo plane.
Argentina’s new government rushed an aid flight here two days before Christmas on orders from Cabinet chief Rodolfo Terragno, who feels a personal connection: He lived in Venezuela as an exile during Argentina’s dictatorship.
And the Argentine airmen and aid workers, who are on a two-week mission to ferry people and supplies among Venezuelan air bases, knew they were sacrificing their holidays for a worthwhile cause, Megassini said.
“I had just gotten back from flying all night when I got the news I was going to Venezuela,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘Happy holidays. I’ve got to go. I have work to do.’ ”