Ciudad Caribia, Vargas, Venezuela.— Every night, before going to bed, Reynaldo Montero takes a moment to be alone, smoke a cigarette and enjoy the silence and mountain breeze – a stark contrast from the noise and heat of the workday.
Almost everyone in the camp is asleep, nearly all in a restless slumber, recalling the images of the day: the permanent dust cloud, the noise of the earth-laden trucks thundering uphill, the rumbling of the bulldozer as it clears the mountain side to the very edge of a spine-chillingly high precipice.
Perhaps this is why “Havana” – as the construction worker from Guanabacoa is nicknamed – uses his downtime to relax and occupy his thoughts with memories of Cuba and his family, while reflecting on the months spent in Venezuela.
This is his second mission in Ciudad Caribia, nestled at an altitude of about 700 meters in the mountains which separate the city of Caracas from the costal stretch of Vargas state, where the Simón Bolívar International Airport – main gateway to the country – is located.
You have to visit the site, or fly over it, in order to admire the construction of the city that Cubans are helping to build in a difficult, rugged and dangerously high location. It was named Ciudad Caribia after the indigenous population of pre-Colombian times known as the Carib people.
A war of heights and contrasts seems to be being fought between nature and the will of man. On one side, the dry peaks of the mountain range, on the other a vast number of buildings competing to reach the clouds, and in the midst of all this, an ecological residential development, which little by little is giving shape to one of Comandante Hugo Chávez’s most cherished dreams.
A NIGHTIME SURPRISE
Reynaldo is very familiar with this dream, because in 2009, when the site was still “scrubland and snakes” – as they say here – he was already in the habit of going out to have a smoke and think in the middle of the night, before going to bed.
”Thinking that I was alone, it gave me a great fright when suddenly a strong voice broke the silence: ‘Aren’t there any Cubans here then?’ Listen, I almost swallowed my cigarette. It was Chávez.
“I told everyone, and you can image what happened next. Everybody ran out to see him, to talk to him, take photos. He walked with us and asked about the tiniest details, about the working and living conditions. We needed a few more things and the next day, on his orders, everything was taken care of.
“He told us how the idea to build a settlement here had occurred to him every time he flew over the area. He said that he wanted to show the world the potential of a genuinely socialist city, and always had the Cubans in mind to carry out the project,” states Reynaldo.
Reinier Gutiérrez, a lorry driver from Cienfuegos, wasn’t present on that occasion, but was so taken with the history of the city that he decided to study it in depth.
”They say that Chávez made the trip up to the site that night because one of the people he was with had asked him when they could learn about Cuba, to which he responded, ‘right now.’ He jumped into a jeep and drove to where the Cuban construction workers were.
”It’s true, Chávez wanted to demonstrate something with Ciudad Caribia, create a large, self-sufficient socialist community, with food plants, service centers, schools, hospitals, urban regulation…
”He was passionate about this place, he used to say it was perfect, just between the capital and the sea, and that he wanted to live here when he was no longer President.
”One of the Aló Presidente programs was filmed here, he came to lay the first brick. Later, we Cuban construction workers continued to lay the rest, and this is the result so far.”
EATING INTO THE MOUNTAINS
The key is not to waste any time, as if the section of the mountain which has been cleared and flattened could rise up again.
Which is why as soon as the land is ready construction works begin, buildings are erected and once completed, poor people start to move in; who from their balconies can observe the development of the works starting from zero across the virgin mountain landscape before them.
Many families wake up to the noise of the engineering crews of the earthmoving brigade - affiliated with the Joint Construction Enterprise ALBA Bolivariana -; a fleet of loaders, bulldozers, motor graders and trucks operated by Cubans which make their way every morning to eat into the mountain, biting into the steep ridges and preparing the ground for the construction of new facilities and access roads.
One of these teams includes Reynaldo and Juan Martínez from Pinar del Rio, who is familiar with the risks and dangers of the job given his own personal experience.
”The terrain varies a great deal, sometimes the ground is rocky, at other times the consistency of loose clay. It’s important to be mindful of the conditions, to drive safely, because sometimes the layer of dust covering the ground is very thick and the truck skids dangerously, only a few centimeters from a very sheer cliff.
”Once my front tire blew whilst descending a very steep slope. I had to use all my expertise to break the vehicle, but you get used to even these types of problems, and as I am not a coward, I never retreat,” he boldly states.
Juan Emilio Cutido is 64, and also a man with 37 years experience driving loaders “which helps me to tackle these terrible hills. Just imagine I’m from Las Tunas, and there are no hills like these there, but the key is skill, paying constant attention to controlling the machine, complying with established norms and avoiding risks.
”Some time ago, a sudden land-slide almost covered a compañero in his bulldozer, and those of us who are constantly flirting with the edge of the mountain, with a cloud of dust which stops you from seeing clearly, are at risk; but while we do everything properly, and take the necessary precautions, nothing stops us.”
Juan Emilio is one of the workers who transports the removed earth to the trucks, one after the other, leaving the terrain level to the specifications of topographers José Breijo, Víctor Hugo or Pablo Nápoles, who are forever overlooking the works from some vantage point, verifying measurements or calculating the dimensions of the next section of mountain to be cut.
A continuous flow of trucks ascend and descend the mountainside, but when they are required to make a long journey, Juan Emilio always take a moment to turn off his machine and sit in his cabin, alone with his thoughts, perched among the clouds he would never be able to reach in Las Tunas, gazing at the sea in the distance.
He knows that far beyond lies Cuba, and his beloved family which he misses so much. “Sometimes up here the feeling of nostalgia is stronger; but you know you’ve got to finish the job, overcome the risks and finish, because if you come here you come to complete the mission, fulfill a commitment.”
One of the trucks starts its engine and we set off again. “Come on old boy, get a move on,” shouts driver Yunier Galera from Bayamo, and while he waits, we see how he also fixes his eyes for a moment on the same horizon, the same sea.
“Of course I miss Cuba a lot. Luckily we are all like family here and this helps a great deal. We are always cracking jokes, you know how Cubans and construction workers are, but we look out for one another, and if we are here working in solidarity with Venezuela, it is with each other first that we offer support and solidarity,” highlights Yunier.
On the other side of the same mountain, a similar group is working to build new homes on the area prepared by the earthmoving brigade. They are completing the most recent structure, and below, a bulldozer makes its way upward toward the sky to start work on new territory.
With help from the Cubans, Ciudad Caribia is growing and Reynaldo, head of the engineering crew, continues to go out before bed to breathe in the silence and a little cigarette smoke.
Naturally he thinks about Cuba, but always remembers that startling evening and the surprise when a great man arrived and asked where all the Cubans were.
Six years on and he feels like he has honored his commitment.
Thanks to his hard work, those mountains are now home to humble families which inhabit and will continue to populate the city, and together with them, in their homes, the realization of Comandante Chávez’s dream.