Life Aboard LULU

June 4, 2007 (Venezuelan Vacuum)
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Venezuelan Vacuum

We're stuck here in Puerto La Cruz waiting for boatyard work to first get quoted, then get started and, possibly, finally even get done. They just don't move at any pace we recognize as an actual pace. Except they talk fast. As in, "mañana/mañana/mañana." Even their word "pronto" is counterintuitive—sounds like "now" but only means "soon."  Synonymous with "mañana/ mañana/ mañana." 

Gary’s figured out that “mañana,” literally “tomorrow,” really means “not today.”  And generally not tomorrow, either.

LULU—hauled up onto the boatyard tarmac under a relentless sun—turned instantly into a sweat bath, projects of more than an hour leaving us drenched and
dehydrated. After one day of closed hatches she turned into an inferno, living aboard a virtual impossibility.

So, we're staying in a hotel, which, in theory, could be very nice, but you can't imagine how bad a Venezuelan breakfast is. And that's the main perk we get. Hot water, we don't. Freezing air conditioning we do. WiFi is free but only in a cavernous lobby, maintained at meat-locker temperatures. The doormen should be wearing parkas, typists (like me) gloves. Even the LULU alternative starts looking alluring.

It’s a huge hotel and marina complex called Maremares. (The meaning is unknown, possibly it’s just another nonsensical mañana/mañana/mañana locution.) This particular reiteration, Alice in Wonderland in scale, is a repetition of indistinguishable (and undistinguished) rooms, similar restaurants, duplicate ceramic patios and identical small outbuildings scattered about far-flung grounds.

Thus, for the past week we've been dashing, climbing, dinghying, toiling and schlepping, while seesawing between 62 and 105 degrees.

The look-alike buildings—pink with white fretwork terraces—and the restaurants and lobby—same pink with white trim—are all variations on the rectangle. But the walkways and byways, the twisty lanes and trysty nooks, in fact, the entire landscape plan, is amoeba-shaped. A paramecium would have been easier to navigate. I am forever getting lost in the heat.

Plus, all walks and attempted shortcuts involve those igloo-to-brushfire temperature shifts.

Is this why they call it walking pneumonia?

There's nothing much to do because there aren't many other cruisers around to play with. It's not quite Fix-it or Park-the-Boat-and-Party Season yet.

For diversion, I could go to one of the many glitzy malls and shop all day but the clothes are too slutty. Even if I would wear them, the size range is impossibly small. If I actually found something that fit in most places I'd need a Venezuelan boob job for the rest to fit. Finally, should there be something I want to buy, I can’t use my VISA to buy it. We can't use credit cards—anywhere—because the rumor—and probable reality—is credit cards get kited and I'll lose my identity. Then I guess I'd be wandering around lost, alternately sweating and shivering, a (genuine-but-nobody-believes-it) blonde old lady in too-loose boat clothes.

Who would take me in?

The food everywhere is mediocre. Not just mediocre but dismally the same. I know I sound like a spoiled-brat ingrate but even the hotel ice cubes are suspect. Gary, who never gets sick, needed an Immodium the other night and the only things he's tasted that I haven't are the ice cubes.

Fortunately local doctors are cheap and hospitals are held in high esteem.

I suppose for diversion we could taxi from the safe suburbs to check out the anti-Chavez student demonstrations downtown. As you all probably know, Mr Chavez has pulled the plug on RCTV, the largest—and longest-running—Venezuelan TV station, the loudest Venezuelan voice dissenting.

Protests and marches have been happening not only in Caracas, but also here on Puerto La Cruz’s main street, Paseo Colon. Because these events no longer get Venezuelan TV coverage, we only hear about them from locals who brave the traffic that’s apparently clotting up subsidiary arteries. Internet news is available but connectivity is often iffy in this hotel.

Apparently, not only are students protesting, but so are many housewives—who, traditionally, are Chavistas—because he's taken away their soaps. Along with the baby and the bathwater. And Venezuelan housewives take their soap operas very, very seriously.

Despite Hugo’s squawking to the contrary, this is the most serious anti-Chavez activity in years. We still remember being here during the attempted coup of 2002 where a US-backed opposition took power only fleetingly. Without significant support from the rest of the world we think the dissent here will fizzle, the complaints come to naught. The Chavez consolidation of power has been massive. In general, people are apathetic, feel powerless and will relapse into torpor. It is, as I've mentioned, very hot here.

Still, his price controls are starting to become onerous at the local, personal level. Big swaths of supermarket cases are empty—beef and chicken have disappeared. Pork, from pig's feet to pork chops, is what's available. Eggs are hard to come by and apparently fresh milk too. At a restaurant tonight, there was no steak for the fajitas, no milk for the coffee and no more bottled water. Did the manager under-order or have supplies dwindled?

Looks like farmers and ranchers aren't producing or are saving their wares for black-market sales.

Some food stores are limiting purchases—so much per customer. Chavez promises free food coupons but people stand on long lines and return with little or nothing they came for.

Though we have been told by our wheeler-dealer, find-it-all money changer that he can get whatever meat and poultry we want—even vacuum-packed and frozen—if we give him a week's notice.

On the other hand, we can't buy a Venezuelan dinghy as we'd planned. Seems production of larger dinghies in the two major factories has been virtually eliminated. It’s not quite clear whether workers simply aren’t working or that management is afraid the government will be telling them who they can hire and who they can't fire. That Chavez will pack their plants with the poor, whose cause he champions, who are neither skilled nor known for their superior work ethic. But who can fault them for cottoning to the idea of complimentary jobs with unlimited futures?

Linda, the owner of the Dinghy Hospital, a small Puerto La Cruz garage operation, now does repairs herself—the "riff-raff" (her implication, if not her exact words, was clear) pick fights instead of patching seams, protest their pay, and she feels menaced dealing with them. Better to be rid of them while it's still possible.

One oil-industry businessman, a Brazilian, told us this pattern is widespread: regulations, labor problems, official corruption, trade obstructions, not to mention inflation, make companies simply give up. If it’s an important enough industry, the government simply takes over. Maremares, this hotel, is apparently partially owned by the government. Since then, the docks have been poorly maintained. The hotel is kept clean but nothing has been upgraded in years. Yet it continues to claim five-star status.

We wonder, is the yard’s excruciatingly slow pace on our boat related to the time of year or actually to the fear of hiring too many people?

Everyone seems to be laying kind of low. A very good climate for seizing more power—this airless, opposition-less atmosphere.

Many people who still have money are trying to get their assets—and their actual asses—out.  Many of the super-rich already have. But so many more, especially the entrepreneurial middle-class, have too much too lose here and too little to gain from relocation, were that even a possibility. They figure, and probably rightly so, which American city will open its arms and stretch its job market to one more brown-skinned Hispanic? Don't they all look—and sound—alike?

Some Venezuelans we've asked think Chavez can't go much further. His past says otherwise. Our cruiser friend, Pam, who spent years in Puerto La Cruz, recently visited and wrote us, “The ‘Executive’ [Chavez] has made good on his promise to invalidate existing contracts with the major US companies operating here. He says since they were executed before his ‘reign’ (of terror), he is not bound by them. So, he has rewritten the contracts, greatly reducing their percentages. In return they have decided to take their toys and go home. Conoco-Phillips alone had 80 families in Puerto La Cruz. Most lived in beautiful canal homes with cooks, gardeners, nannies, chauffeurs, etc. They have all been sent home, so now not only are these homes vacant, but all those workers are unemployed.”

Chavez cares nothing about the imperialist owners of real estate and it would be completely consistent with many of his previous statements—suggesting have-nots steal from haves, even squat in their property—for him to invite his followers to move right in. But he also seems to care nothing about the country’s infrastructure crumbling. One (middle-class) Venezuelan said (quietly) “He’s counting on the poor making him Emperor.”

Who's to stop him? Will powerful oil-slurping countries get nervous he will stop selling them? But how far and what kind of pain can they inflict? What meaningful sanctions can they pull from their pockets when he's got billions in his?

Force? Not in the post-Iraq pressure cooker Bush produced.

Moral suasion? What a quaint Wilsonesque idea, when anesthetics with names like Cambodia, 9/11, Guantanamo and Darfur have blunted our will, stunted our consciences.

An American friend says the Wall Street Journal reported Chavez is taking over farms and giving them to city folk who don't know how to farm. I have not heard that…yet. But we do know he's given to the grand gesture. His oil and heat giveaways, his building and boondoggle projects around the world have bought votes and influence, made him very popular with scores of people who are, not surprisingly, interested in their own, and not Venezuela's, plight.

Someone like Juan Baro, who runs a small marina in Margarita—his own mini-monopoly servicing cruisers with beer, laundry, cheap transportation, uncomplicated check-ins and seamless check-outs—is effusive in his praise of Chavez. Loudly and frequently proclaims himself a Chavista. But we think he's holding hands with the corrupt bureaucracy, greasing the palms of the Guardia, rumming it up with the all-powerful local military. See, Juan is isolated out in the boonies, where he's cleaning up like the most fervent of capitalists, all the while extolling Socialism and ballyhooing his Savior.

While we, perhaps prejudiced American plutocrats—the brainwashed well-washed—see a great country, with an ebullient populace, ebbing away.


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