Life Aboard LULU

Feb 28, 2002 (The Political Situation in Venezuela)
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Looks like we got out of Venezuela just in time. (Not that I’ve quite finished writing about it.)

Unless President Hugo Chavez steps down willingly it’s possible the armed forces may forcibly put him out. Early this week another--the fourth in a month—high-ranking military man spoke out against Chavez and asked him to go willingly. A military coup is a possibility; the president might also declare martial law, wipe out the free press and declare a dictatorship.

 On December 10 virtually the whole country struck – almost no one went to work, to demonstrate the lack of confidence. In January thousands marched in Caracas, protesting the government. The opposition has gained important strength, but they badly – and admittedly -- lack a candidate popular or charismatic or clever enough to replace Chavez.

Chavez, typically, pooh-poohs the seriousness of the situation and has no intention of stepping down.

 During our eight months there, we watched this governmental destabilization and the continued deterioration of the economy. The currency lost about 20 percent of its value during that time and then just last week, the government free-floated the Bolívar and it lost another 20 percent.

 The middle class has almost completely disappeared into unemployment or as a result of this inflationary currency. Anyone who might still be categorized middle class, complains bitterly. When Chavez took office some three years ago, public health doctors were on strike – surgeons, for example, earned the equivalent of $500 US dollars a month. We hear about the “capital flight:” and read in one of the newspapers that about $8 billion left Venezuela in just one year. Anyone who’s rich, adventurous and can actually get out thinks about it -- or actually does it. More than 200,000 people have relocated so far under Chavez’s watch.. .

 This president, a shining hope just two years ago, is now widely viewed as a chistoso—a clown.

 “We are feeling – how do you say it…shame? – about him,” said my doctor friend, Camilo.

 “Embarrassment?” I suggested.

 “Sí, Sí, yes, the man belongs in a hospital. He is loco. He needs to be…” And here Camilo placed his arms around himself in the multi-national gesture for straitjacket.

 A bantam rooster with a puffed out chest, whose hyperbolic pronunciamentos, wild promises, bombastic predictions and impossible-to-achieve programs are delivered in four- and five- and even six-hour speeches, frequently two and three times a week. The media is required to cover these performances and the entire diplomatic corps must attend. A clown, perhaps, but no joke.

 ”Every time he opens his mouth, he insults someone. He can’t keep alienating powerful people,” says Bernardo, a native Caraqueño and a tour guide. Chavez’s anti-American stance is well documented—though he denies it. The US is his best oil customer, so he dare not alienate us completely. But his sympathy message after the September 11th attacks was perfunctory and came with veiled warnings about our treatment of the downtrodden and disadvantaged.

 He televises his hatred of Venezuela’s “oligarcos,” a category that translates roughly into anyone with money and specifically those “with possibilities,” as he puts it. Just weeks ago, in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, he labeled the church “a tumor.” Chavez’s new constitution, which reads like a primer for democracy and is sold by street vendors, promised the people health, not health insurance, but health. It is an empty promise, Bernardo says: Chavez plans on delivering with Cuban expertise, traded for heavily discounted Venezuelan oil.

 Chavez’s popularity has been progressively waning, not only among the reviled wealthy but even among the poor, the backbone of his constituency. His approval rate dropped from more than 90 percent at election, to a solid 80 percent in the first year, and now to the mid-50s, and is likely well below that now. His detractors say that only 20 percent are the hard-core committed.

 Many of the president’s plans sound good, are, in fact, needed reforms. But they’re grandiose and completely unfeasible for a country struggling to feed and educate its people, said our friend Seyril, former UN representative to Venezuela. Seyril is normally mild-mannered, understated like a true diplomat, but quivers in frustration and fury when discussing Chavez. The educational system is in shambles, says our friend Vicki, who caters to the Puerto La Cruz cruising community—she says teachers report to work erratically and students go to school not much more than half a day.

 I met a friendly businessman named Pradeep Vaswani, owner of a large store just off Porlamar’s bustling central square that sells a variety of cheap imported Indian cottons. “I have a very profitable business here but I have to leave because my children are getting no education,” he said, his eyes suddenly deep pools of sadness. “This country is one big fraud,” he continued. “Who wouldn’t do well here, since 60 to 70 percent of the people don’t pay taxes. Even those whose consciences bother them know it doesn’t go back to the people. Only the poor and illiterate believe Chavez.

 “What do you think of Vancouver, Canada?” Pradeep asked, brightening.” Do you think we can open a fast-food business there for $125,000—I have that in cash.”

 I didn’t have the heart to disabuse him. “Go and look…”

 No easy answers

But Venezuela’s problems are not new and Chavez inherited most of them: the deeply stratified society...the precipitous drop in the price of oil that pulled the rug out of the booming economy more than 12 years ago...the soaring unemployment and violent crime figures...the sordid, dangerous barrios people have no choice but to live in...the mismanagement and open thievery of previous governments, the horrific mudslides on the mountains around Caracas in 1999 with the concomitant sky-high increase in the homeless.

 Chavez has played the role of revolutionary and savior of his people, obviously casting himself in the Castro mold. Beyond his vitriol about the rich and privileged, he has thrown his lot in with the masses of poor and downtrodden. He romanticizes them, dramatizes their plight and courts them with sweeping generalizations, inflammatory speeches and a folksy, jokey, hammy presentation that gloss over serious problems. He can be so rash, so completely un-Presidential and in such poor taste on his regular, open-ended and frequently interminable radio/TV program, “Aló, Presidente,”  that it’s easy to label him insane. He’s an easy guy to hate, especially to those he’s made a noisy point of hating. On the other hand, he actually may be a touch crazy. Or just crazy like a fox. He might also actually care—poverty and deprivation are part of his heritage.

A master of the grand gesture, he frequently singles out one person at a political event or rally, and either solves that person’s problem or makes his dream come true. A sort of Governmental Make-A-Wish Sweepstakes. The lucky party functions as the poster boy for millions of others, who hope to be chosen next time. 

 Chavez promises them a redistribution of wealth, a rash and unachievable promise he cannot hope to deliver on. And then, in one widely unpopular move, he cut off the money and food stipends once given to every family who continued to send their children to school after sixth grade. Today those children work the farms – or roam the streets. On the other hand, his educational reform program favors expansion of the small network of special public schools for poor children. He has installed several hundred Castro-provided teachers in those schools that already exist; his enemies protest the almost certain Cubanization of their children.

 The president’s vision, his Plan Bolívar, to totally revamp the country’s infrastructure – roads, schools, housing, hospitals – for the poor is surely not ill conceived—it’s simply illusionary. And pulling Venezuela’s Guardia Nacional soldiers out of their barracks, dispatching them into the countryside to implement this grand plan couldn’t have helped but result in the current military outcry.

 In Puerto Real last summer, we saw five houses in construction. I asked the welder, the lone workman on the scene, if they were government-built. They were he told me. Four others were going up over the ridge and 15 others in nearby Arayo. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to find out who would be chosen to occupy them and why, but this housing was surely part of Chavez’s grand design to create “self-sustaining, agro-industrial communities” and to repopulate the countryside. Such a plan is unrealistic when more than 85 percent of the country lives in cities. Still, I’d surmise, given living conditions, there are more takers than leavers for a brand new house with running water and indoor plumbing.

 While spouting libertarian rhetoric, Chavez disbanded the Senate, packed the Assembly with his  cronies. Last summer, reviving a military strongman position that hadn’t existed for 80 years, he installed one of his high-school buddies, making him second-in-command to Chavez himself --more powerful than all elected officials. The president’s other chosen lieutenants are accused of being incompetent, uncaring or outright dishonest. His accusers say the military (and, they infer or say outright, the president himself) are emptying the national coffers, stuffing bills into satchels. We’ve heard eyewitness accounts of suitcases of cash set at the feet of plastic and laser surgeons by the wives of colonels and generals.

 In the late fall, ignoring the legislature, Chavez instituted sweeping legal changes: new taxes, government seizure of “unused” lands (read here, large parcels of unfarmed land, i.e., the lands of the idle, absentee-landlord class) and some 25 others. He continues to encourage people to steal what they need from whoever has more than he needs.

 Don weighs in

”Venezuela is the most corrupt place I have ever lived in--and I’ve lived all over Asia,” said Don, Jak’s husband, in Porlamar. Don runs his own rigging business out of the restaurant. You can’t get a visa, a license plate, a driver’s license without paying off someone. No one knows the system or the rules. If you know how to pay, it’s easy.”

 People who can’t pay have to stand in line for a driver’s license. They get on line at 4:30 in the morning when the bureau doesn’t open until 8. Half are rejected because the stamp isn’t in the right place, or some other bit of procedural nonsense, and have to come back another day.

 “It cost us $2 million Bolívars (about $2,800) to get permission to move the restaurant less than a mile,” Don said. “Everyone needs a resident visa; by law you have to carry it with you. You can wait years. I paid $300 and it took 24 hours.

He pointed to an unfinished high-rise nearby.  “All the forms had been approved, the outer structure was up, like you see it. Then a new port captain came in and changed the required tide setback. I guess they could have paid him off…They just abandoned the project.”

Of course many buildings were also started in Margarita in boom times but were outright scams—the initial financing was raised, foundations laid, financing to continue was solicited and the “builders” disappeared with the loot. Other projects were stopped because there’s no one to buy the luxury units.

 Same old, same old

Bureaucracy and corruption are familiar themes in the Caribbean and, for the most part, people tend to take it almost philosophically -- as long as it’s kept within some reasonable limits. As one

Grenada cab driver put it, “They all steal. We just hope they leave a little over for us.” 

 Sad, but the reality is most Caribbean and South American people have always been dirt poor, eking paltry livings from farming or fishing. With a tradition of being exploited first by slavery, then by various European colonial governments, the citizenry has low expectations. Their political systems may pay lip service to, but have none of the moral, political or intellectual underpinnings of, democracy -- no exposure to freedom, no egalitarian philosophers like Mill or Diderot or Jefferson or Adams and no enlightened libertarian leaders capable of sticking to the program and keeping their hands out of the till. In Venezuela and the rest of Central- and South America, statues and street names commemorating freedom fighters are rarely more current than the 19th century liberator and hero, Simon Bolívar – unless erected by some self-congratulatory dictator or military junta.

 Moreover, their leaders are not regularly called to the banquet tables of power. What distinguished Roosevelt Douglas, the energetic, visionary Dominican Prime Minister we met two years ago, was his charisma and connections to important world leaders, along with his eagerness to go after other countries for money and projects. His surprising and sudden death, at 58, after barely a year in office, devastated his people, dashing their hopes for infusions of foreign aid and grand-scale infrastructure improvements. 

 In Venezuela, Chavez’s constant, sweeping and undelivered promises have started to inflame people about their continuing poverty. Caracas has been, and continues to be, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Country-wide, an average of 90 homicides take place every weekend. Almost everyone is armed, Seyril says, and certainly we have seen sawed-off shotgun pistols riding in hip holsters on many a Joe Q. Public. In Porlamar this fall a total stranger offered to sell one to my mild-mannered husband.

 Chavez’s outright invitations to steal from the rich, have spawned increases in the level of petty crime we see and hear about along the coastlines. Dinghies now disappear regularly from once-safe anchorages. Our Margarita guide, Carlos, told us that doctors and nurses regularly steal medicines from public clinics. “If you get in an accident, you’d better hope you can bring your own first aid,” he told us. Even in small villages, people are watching their neighbors with jealous eyes.

 Seyril, who has lived here many years and would like nothing more than to stay, feels she must retire back to the US because Venezuela – certainly Venezuela under Chavez—must inevitably continue to deteriorate and become more dangerous. We hope, that if Chavez goes, someone will succeed in reversing this tide and in a non-violent process.

 Meanwhile, though the tides have now taken us elsewhere, my next few updates will continue filling you in on our last months in Venezuela.




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