By SIMON ROMERO – The New York Times
CARACAS, Venezuela â€” The golfers still argue over handicaps. The waiters still serve flutes of MoÃ«t & 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 Venezuelaâ€™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 this month 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 has seized hundreds of businesses this year alone, and thousands of people are homeless because of heavy rains, accentuating a severe housing shortage. At the behest of President Hugo ChÃ¡vez, flood victims have already moved into hotels, museums, the Foreign Ministry and even his own office. (Mr. ChÃ¡vez says he will stay in a tent given him by Libyaâ€™s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.)
â€œWe are waiting,â€ said Manuel Fuentes, 69, the country clubâ€™s vice president, in the English he learned as a teenager while studying at the New York Military Academy. â€œIt would be a tragedy for the city to lose such an icon, but itâ€™s a scenario weâ€™ve been forced to acknowledge.â€
In many ways, it is remarkable that such a club still exists here at all, given the expropriation of so many private companies this year, 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 governmentâ€™s crosshairs.
Like a relic of an earlier time, the club stands for so much of what Mr. ChÃ¡vez is against. But while many of its members chafe against the governmentâ€™s attempts to exert greater control over the economy, some have seen their fortunes grow through quiet deals with Mr. ChÃ¡vezâ€™s government.
Adding to the rub, the clubâ€™s ties to one of Mr. ChÃ¡vezâ€™s favorite foils, the United States, are so deep that a former American 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, Mr. ChÃ¡vez called on this cityâ€™s golf courses last month to â€œput their hand on their heartsâ€ to assist or house flood evacuees. If not, he said in a not-so-veiled threat, â€œweâ€™ll put their hand there for them.â€
The reaction to the clubâ€™s predicament reflects that of the polarized country itself. JosÃ© Bejarano, 34, a motorbike courier who works in a neighborhood on the clubâ€™s southern fringe, said it was hard to shed any tears for such an island of privilege.
â€œWeâ€™re in a national emergency, and the club has empty land that can be used for the poor,â€ he said.
Only a short stroll away, Antonio Jerez, 42, a newsstand owner, said a takeover of the club would be folly. â€œOur president respects no one, as if heâ€™s the only one entitled to the good things in life,â€ he said.
Almost drowned out in the whole debate is the option, supported by some of the clubâ€™s own members, that its golf course be made into a public park in a city badly in need of green space.
The club has faced challenges to its autonomy before. In 2006, the mayor of Caracas abruptly ordered the acquisition of its golf course. But maneuvering by the clubâ€™s lawyers and infighting among the presidentâ€™s allies halted the takeover.
Much has changed since 2006, however, explaining the pall that settled over the club this month. Mr. ChÃ¡vez, who is known to publicly telegraph his expropriation targets, said on state television that he could see the clubâ€™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. One recent morning around the hair salon, rumors swirled among employees that federal officials had already conducted a secret inspection of the club.
â€œSomeone commented that they had seen them,â€ said a member of the club as she passed the salon, asking that her name not be used because of the kidnapping threat for wealthy people in the public eye here. As for the supposed inspectors, she added, â€œItâ€™s not that they got in.â€
To arrive at the club, one must drive through a leafy district of private mansions called (in English, of course) Country Club. Once inside the grounds, it is easy to bump into prominent members of the upper crust that Mr. ChÃ¡vez derides, like Peter Bottome, 72, one of the owners of RCTV, a television network critical of the president that was forced off the public airwaves in 2007.
â€œPrivate property, whatâ€™s that?â€ Mr. Bottome joked as he was getting a haircut in the barber shop.
Elsewhere, servants dashed about under the chandeliers. Macaws screeched from their perches in the samÃ¡n trees. Bon vivants, dressed in blazers as per club rules, sipped whisky and puffed on cigars in El PingÃ¼ino, the clubâ€™s air-conditioned bar, in a scene that would not have been out of place in pre-revolutionary Havana.
Some members contend that Mr. ChÃ¡vezâ€™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 â€” called Boligarchs for their quick accumulation of wealth and their ties to the government, which reveres SimÃ³n BolÃvar, the 19th-century liberation hero â€” also brought change to the clubâ€™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 clubâ€™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 Venezuelaâ€™s national treasurer. She said the fawning around Mr. Andrade, a noted horse aficionado who moves with ease in such rarefied circles, was more entertaining than the show jumping itself.
â€œYou see the government apparatchiks paying private homage to the oligarchy they publicly ridicule, and vice versa,â€ Ms. Neumann said of the atmosphere at the club that day. â€œThe former out of a desire to belong, the latter out of a desire to survive.â€
Sandra La Fuente P. contributed reporting.