Rebuilding Venezuela a Challenge for Chavez

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Venezuelans may agree with President Chavez on the causes of the country's high flood-death toll, but they may not like his solutions. Chavez blamed the "criminal irresponsibility" of previous governments for the estimated 50,000 deaths from last week's floods, citing the widespread construction of illegal shantytowns on hillsides. The left-leaning populist president warned that there would be no rebuilding of some of the worst-hit neighborhoods, and that people would be forbidden from building in areas vulnerable to mudslides. And while the former paratrooper has earned top marks for his hands-on supervision of relief efforts, his approach to rebuilding the country in the wake of its worst disaster this century may dent his overwhelming popularity among Venezuela's underclass.

"He's already started moving homeless people from shelters around the capital out to seven military camps, where they're being put up in barracks and told to make new lives," says TIME Latin America bureau chief Tim McGirk. "But despite the incentives he'll offer in terms of jobs and housing, many people won't want to be moved away from the city." Though government reconstruction efforts will be helped by the fact that prices are rising for the country's premier cash cow, its oil industry (which is largely unaffected by the flooding), persuading citizens to move away from urban centers — and the jobs they contain — will be difficult. By declaring a break with past patterns of urbanization, Chavez may be attempting a bit of social engineering that taxes both his country's resources and his own considerable inventory of political goodwill.