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, 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
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
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.
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
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.