There is a certain breed of non-fiction story that I call the bridge burner—a tale so damning that it ensures that the writer will never again enjoy access to a vast swath of trusted sources. A prime example would be Jon Lee Anderson’s recent “Slumlord,” in which he paints a vivid portrait of the chaos that Hugo Chavez has created in Venezuela. Although “chaos” is perhaps too mild a word to characterize the atmosphere that Anderson describes—the place he describes more closely resembles the dystopian prison in Escape from New York than a functioning nation.
There are many stellar set pieces in the story, including a lengthy exploration of life in the Torre de David, an unfinished skyscraper now inhabited by squatters and ruled by a quasi-religious gangster chieftain. But the anecdote that will always stick with me is this passage, in which Anderson visits one of the many prisons now entirely controlled by armed inmates:
A prison official drove me on a dirt road around the perimeter fence. We stopped, and I saw two tall cellblocks with scores of bullet holes in their facades; where te windows should have been there were jagged holes, and a large group of shirtless, rough-looking men looking down at us. A thick black line of human excrement ran down an exterior wall, and in the yard below was a sea of sludge and garbage several feet deep. “We can’t hang around here,” the official said. “If we stay too long, they might shoot at us.” As we drove off, he explained that there were only six guards at a time inside the prison. The inmates allowed one handpicked guard to retrieve dead bodies they left there.
I very much doubt that Anderson will get any sit-downs with Chavez’s successor. But he has placed himself in excellent position to report on the nascent opposition to the Chavista “dynasty,” which seems to be taking shape outside of Venezuela’s borders.
(Image via Caracas Chronicles)