Oasis of elite under threat

CARACAS, Venezuela – The golfers still argue over handicaps. The waiters still serve flutes of Moet & Chandon. Sunlight still kisses the grounds laid out in the 1920s by Olmsted Brothers, the esteemed American landscape architects.

The idyll of the Caracas Country Club, a bastion of opulence for Venezuela’s elite, still seems intact.

But perhaps not for much longer.

Beneath the veneer of tranquillity, a feeling of dread prevails. A state newspaper published a study in December saying that if the government expropriated the land of the Caracas Country Club and that of another club in the city, housing for 4,000 poor families could be built on the parcels. The idea is hardly far-fetched. After all, the government had seized hundreds of businesses in 2010 alone, and thousands of people are homeless because of heavy rains, accentuating a severe housing shortage. At the behest of President Hugo Chavez, flood victims have already moved into hotels, museums, the Foreign Ministry and even his own office. (Chavez says he will stay in a tent given him by Libya’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi.)

“We are waiting,” said Manuel Fuentes, 69, the country club’s vice president, in the English he learned as a teenager while studying at the New York Military Academy. “It would be a tragedy for the city to lose such an icon, but it’s a scenario we’ve been forced to acknowledge.”

In many ways, it is remarkable that such a club still exists here at all, given the expropriation of so many private companies in 2010, whether cattle ranches or construction firms. Some of the seized assets were owned by members of the Caracas Country Club, but somehow the club and its leisure pursuits, like show jumping, seemed to escape unscathed.

The club embodies the contradictions of Venezuela and its socialist-inspired revolution, in which the moneyed elite still lead lives of luxury, even if their cloistered existence is often marked by resignation and fear. Members say the cost of joining, once $150,000, is now down to about $100,000, reflecting, in part, anxiety about belonging to a club in the government’s crosshairs.

Like a relic of an earlier time, the club stands for so much of what Chavez is against. But while many of its members chafe against the government’s attempts to exert greater control over the economy, some have seen their fortunes grow through quiet deals with Chavez’s government.

Adding to the rub, the club’s ties to one of Chavez’s favourite foils, the United States, are so deep that a former U.S. ambassador, C. Allan Stewart, died of a heart attack while golfing on its greens and the names of its founders, including a cadre of American oilmen, are inscribed on its walls.

After this uneasy coexistence, Chavez called on this city’s golf courses in December to “put their hand on their hearts” to assist or house flood evacuees. If not, he said in a not-so-veiled threat, “we’ll put their hand there for them.”

The reaction to the club’s predicament reflects that of the polarized country itself. Jose Bejarano, 34, a motorbike courier who works in a neighbourhood on the club’s southern fringe, said it was hard to shed any tears for such an island of privilege. “We’re in a national emergency, and the club has empty land that can be used for the poor,” he said.

Only a short stroll away, Antonio Jerez, 42, a newsstand owner, said a takeover of the club would be folly. “Our president respects no one, as if he’s the only one entitled to the good things in life,” he said.

Almost drowned out in the whole debate is the option, supported by some of the club’s own members, that its golf course be made into a public park in a city badly in need of green space.

has faced challenges to its autonomy before. In 2006, the mayor of Caracas abruptly ordered the acquisition of its golf course. But manoeuvring by the club’s lawyers and infighting among the president’s allies halted the takeover.

Much has changed since 2006, however, explaining the pall that settled over the club in December. Chavez, who is known to publicly telegraph his expropriation targets, said on state television that he could see the club’s expanses of land, its empty golf course, from overhead in his helicopter.

Club directors responded by saying the 18-hole course was exposed to flooding, too, making it impractical to pitch tents for evacuees on the premises. They said they were already providing employees and their families, many of whom live in nearby slums, with assistance during the floods.

Now the stately clubhouse, which few Venezuelans aside from the 2,000 members and their guests ever enter, is rife with speculation over what will happen.

Some members contend that Chavez’s rise had already changed life within the club forever, reflecting a chasm between members who have openly clashed with the president and others who have discreetly opted to profit from contracts with his government.

The emergence of a new class of magnates – called Boligarchs for their quick accumulation of wealth and their ties to the government, which reveres Simon Bolívar, the 19th-century liberation hero – also brought change to the club’s doorstep.

Some Boligarchs, like Wilmer Ruperti, an oil tanker tycoon, bought mansions close to the club, even if they never joined it. Another pro-government businessman, Diego Salazar, is a member. A senior public official or two are even occasionally glimpsed on the club’s grounds. Their presence captures the rise of one elite and the decline of another, and the sometimes awkward dance between these groups as this process unfolds.

Vanessa Neumann, a writer whose grandfather was a major industrialist here, described a recent show jumping competition at the club attended by Alejandro Andrade, a former military official and now Venezuela’s national treasurer. She said the fawning around Andrade, a noted horse aficionado who moves with ease in such rarefied circles, was more entertaining than the show jumping itself.

‘’You see the government apparatchiks paying private homage to the oligarchy they publicly ridicule, and vice versa,“ Neumann said of the atmosphere at the club that day. ”The former out of a desire to belong, the latter out of a desire to survive.“