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Chavez Appearance Creates a Stir in Caracas Barrio

Monday, Nov. 13, 2006

MACARAO, Venezuela - We got off the train in this mountainside settlement of barrios on the outskirts of Caracas and walked into a mob-scene of red t-shirts.

Reggaeton, Carribean rap music, thumped from tall stacks of black speakers, thousands of people danced in the street drinking bottled beer and sangria.

Motorbikes revved through the crowd spewing blue smoke and the smell of gasoline.

At first, the whole scene reminded me of the wild "block-parties" I attended as a child on the outskirts of Boston. Entire streets would be blocked for the sole purpose of giving people a place to drown themselves in hedonism - to throw down and party like hell on a Saturday night.

But this was much bigger, and it was a weekday afternoon no less. Indeed, the people of Macarao were dancing in the streets for a reason better than hedonism.

Chavez was coming.

"Ooh, Ah! Chavez no se va," they chanted. "Ooh, Ah! Chavez won't go."

We worked our way through the crowd, down a bottle and trash-strewn street toward an opening near a bridge. People lined both sides of its entrance as rumors swirled over the direction from which the President's caravan would arrive.

"He's coming from that way," shouted one.

"No, no, he's coming from the train station," said another.

A motorbike whizzed past, cutting through the crowd with such alacrity that collision felt imminent. I looked up and saw a man on a rooftop across the street doing masonry work, paying no attention to the bash underway below.

Beside the road, a group of young kids were engrossed in a game of hopping across wide square-shaped holes dug in the dirt. I stood next to one. It was deep.

Yolbis, a 12-year-old boy, sat smiling near the holes. I asked him, if he were allowed to vote, would he vote for Chavez?

"Yes," he said.

I asked why, and he became thoughtful a moment. "Just because," he said. Then, with a smile creeping back across his lips, he added: "He throws good parties."

Sarahi, an 11-year-old girl said the rally and street party were particularly enjoyable for her because, "Ilike the theater."

On a stage near the road, Chavez supporters performed "Florentino and the Devil," a Venezuelan folk-tale about a man who challenges the devil to a nighttime duel of singing. In the play, Florentino wins by singing until sunrise, since the devil must flee when the bright light arrives.

As Sarahi spoke of the folk-tale, a man standing nearby chimed in that it carries special meaning for Chavez backers. No doubt, the Venezuelan president has been known to refer to U.S. president George W. Bush as "the devil."

Yohelis, a bright-eyed 10-year-old, said she's a big supporter of Chavez "because he built a new subway line." She said she would like to meet the president, and if she ever gets the chance, "I would ask him for a new house."

I asked her if there was something wrong with her current house. "I like it," she said, "But it's crumbling apart. We need a new one. We've been asking for a house for some years. We haven't received it yet."

Nearby, two middle-aged women spoke of great hope Chavez has given people of this area. One was Afro-Venezuelan, the other of a tan complexion. "You see this," she said rubbing her forearm. "This is the color of the Revolution." She then showed us a folder full of papers she intended to give the president when he arrived. It was a list, she said, of improvements needed in her neighborhood, and recommendations on how to bring them about.

A few moments later, all mayhem broke out. The crack of fireworks filled the air. Some exploded close overhead, sending ashes and debris onto the crowd. Two heavyset men detonated what sounded like a bomb - an M-80 perhaps, like the super loud firecrackers they used to set off at the block parties.

People suddenly crammed the street screaming. Hugo Chavez came rolling through atop a huge truck. Very sexy young women danced atop another truck following slowly behind him. Chavez waved. Above the crowd, he spotted the man doing masonry work on a rooftop. He raised a fist to the man, who stood and raised his shovel in return.

The crowd grew even more crushing. A stamped mounted as people pushed to keep up with the president's truck. The holes in the dirt beside the road suddenly looked deep as graves. Myself and other men braced against the them. A woman with a baby in her arms nearly toppled. Somehow, no one fell in.

When the mob had passed, we stood trying to digest the whole scene. One of the women we'd spoken with earlier walked by. She no longer had the folder under her arm. "I gave it too him," she said. "I gave him the list."