News and opinions on the situation in Venezuela
Touching the Revolution!: A Bolivarian Tour of Magnificent, Modern Venezuela!
TOP STORY AT THIS HOUR!
“In the South we are victims of the media monopoly of the North, which acts as a power system responsible for disseminating in our countries and planting in the minds of our citizens, information, values and consumption patterns that are basically alien to our realities and that have turned themselves into the most powerful and effective tool of domination. Never is domination more perfect than when the dominated people think like the dominators do.”
Adjectives like “magnificent” and “modern” cannot adequately describe my observations of the land and the physical accomplishments of the Chavez administration in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The redundant surfs of writers and their writings have churned adjectives from unique rocks into sand, rendering them meaningless, leaving poetry as the writer’s last refuge. But poetry is not limited to an ensemble of words. The grandeur of the mountains, beaches and jungles are themselves, nature’s poems. My Bolivarian tour of Venezuela did not include a boat trip down the Orinoco river or a trek into the mountains or rain forests, but no visitor can escape hypnotic views of the mountains as they rise from the sea. No words or photograph can deliver the essence of Venezuela’s natural beauty.
People on the North American continent have some strange ideas about Venezuela and other Latin American countries. These are wrapped in ideas and terms that are the product of decades of misinformation and disinformation by the corporate news and entertainment media in the United States and elsewhere - terms like “banana republic”, “instability”, “third world” and distorted ideas about the terms “revolution” and “revolutionary”. When carefully examined, I find that more often than not, these terms are embedded in the ugly phenomenon of racism among US citizens. In the minds of many citizens of the US, they are combined with negative images of Hispanic Americans promulgated in “Cops”, “Law and Order” and other television shows and Hollywood movies about crime and police. As a result, many US citizens think of Venezuela and other Latin American countries as being “undeveloped”, “under developed” and “backward”. All of this feeds ignorance and racism that prevails among the masses in the United States.
My purpose in writing this second installment of Touching the Revolution!, is to dispel some of the misunderstanding and preconceptions so many seem to have about Venezuela. I must first file the disclaimer – that I did not have the time to even scratch the surface of Venezuela’s art galleries and architecture or the natural beauty of its rain forests, exotic jungles and the intrinsic cultural wealth of the indigenous people who comprise the majority of Venezuela’s population. The “poetry” of this piece is not offered in florid descriptions of modern Venezuela. Instead, it attempts to offer the some of the poetry of the country’s modernity and tradition which whispers from Venezuela’s cities, towns and countryside.
Maiquetia Airport, the international airport serving the capital city of Caracas, is located at sea level and Caracas lies at about 3,000 feet above sea level. Flying into the airport is impressive. The view of the mountains ascending into the clouds, fronted by the carpet of the Caribbean sea is one of nature’s stunning displays of splendor and power. The view of the natural beauty of mountains and sea surrounding the airport stands in contrast with a view of very low-income, red block houses, precariously stacked against the mountainside. This is the first display one sees of the poverty that had been so entrenched in Venezuela for 4 decades. Images of these houses are often described by those who wish to negatively portray the new Venezuelan government. But as we shall see, those conditions are gradually changing as a result of affordable housing development by the Chavez government. A significant amount of time and distance are required to turn around a thousand foot oil tanker! But Venezuela is gradually turning around … revolving in a revolution.
Passage from the airport to the city of Caracas through the mountains and two tunnels required about one hour by car, on the well-maintained autopista comparable to any interstate highway in the US. Getting from the airport to town is also available with a good bus service running regularly throughout the day until the last plane flies in. This service costs just Bs2,000 (about $1). The bus arrives in Caracas within easy walking distance from a metro station (Bellas Artes) not far from the Sheraton Hotel. A one way on the metro within zone 1 costs just Bs260 (about 15 cents). You enter Caracas through its western end from which low income housing can again be seen. Caracas is a well-organised, bustling metropolitan city. Glistening high-rise residential and commercial buildings, expansive shopping districts, lovely, well-maintained city parks, excellent hotel accommodations, a clean, efficient high speed transit system and magnetic restaurants greet the guest in Caracas. I am told that a few of the special places to visit in Caracas are the Botanical Garden, Museum of Contemporary Art, National Art Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts and Natural Sciences.
I stayed at the La Floresta Hotel. Located in Altamira, a high income section of Caracas, next to the beautiful Plaza Altamira. The plaza is a splendid, well-lit, well maintained city park with Obelisco Plaza Altamira (axisoflogic.com/artman/uploads/plazaaltamira.jpg photo) in the center and lovely fountains lined with grass, trees and park benches. La Floresta Hotel is surrounded with restaurants, retail shops and commercial and residential high rise buildings. My room at the hotel was spacious, clean and comfortable, and had a walkable balcony with an outstanding view of a gleaming city-scape against a backdrop of the towering El Avila mountain range at the northmost end of the Andes. The room overlooked lush, green, La Estancia, a private park and art gallery which the Chavez administration has now opened to the public. The cost of the room was very reasonably priced at $45 a night. The hotel staff were very friendly and eager to please guests visiting the spacious, well-appointed lounge and bar on the first floor of the hotel.
Like the rest of Caracas, Altamira is a center of social and commercial activity: pedestrian, mass transit and automobile traffic; people enjoying the city parks; commercial banking; working government offices; restaurants, street vendors, retail business, and venues for the arts. Visiting guests can find just about anything worth in this charming, urban setting. Outside the hotel, I walked freely about during the day and at night in Plaza Altimira and in the streets within about a 10 block radius of the hotel. Each evening in Altamira, I enjoyed seeing couples and individuals walking alone on the streets and sitting in the parks during the day and evening. Plaza Altamira always seemed to be filled with people chatting amiably, old men “holding court”, lovers spooning, children playing and folks sitting alone, enjoying the scene.
Caracas is a shopper’s paradise! Like any other modern, world class city, it presents a buffet of modern indoor and outdoor shops offering everything from fashionable clothing and bookstores to architecture furniture and electronic equipment. City Center, a glistening building filled with stores offering just about everything, including 4 busy internet cafes only two blocks from Altamira Plaza. Sabana Grande, located 2 subway stops from Altamira Plaza, is a wide, mile-long pedestrian boulevard, lined on both sides with hundreds of outdoor and indoor shops and on both sides of the center median. At a halfway point along this walk is a modern, indoor city mall offering a variety of goods including fashions from Paris, London and New York. Vendedores ambulantes (street vendors) here and along many Caracas streets offer everything from wonderful fresh fruit and Venezuelan pastries to jewelry, crafts and casual wear. I purchased a container of delicious fresh mango, cut in strips for me as I watched. The shop owners are courteous, respectful and non-intrusive. While spending the better part of a day on Sabana Grande I was never once approached by a vendor, asking me to make a purchase. Prices are more than reasonable. Imported goods are generally more expensive than domestic, but even (for example) the prices of the latest imported digital cameras and computers were on par with those in Boston. I also visited the Hansi Arts and Crafts Center where arts and crafts of Venezuela’s proud indigenous population are offered.
The Metro: One of the things that surprised me the most about Caracas is the Metro – their high-speed, underground subway system. Stations are conveniently located and incredibly clean. The trains run much more frequently than their counterpart systems in New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco. The trains are cleaner and faster and run more frequently, by my estimate, than in any I’ve traveled in these cities.
Bus Transportation: The buses run constantly throughout Caracas and one can travel to any part of the city with relative ease at very low expense. During rush hour, the buses are packed but they run with sufficient frequency that long waits are rare.
Streets and Highways: The streets for driving in Caracas are good. Once while riding in a car, the driver complained to me about a pot hole. I had to smile and told him how much worse the potholes are on Boston streets! The highways (autopistas) I traveled between cities and towns were very good. The price of gasoline is about 14 cents/gallon. Because of the worst flooding in many years, just before and during my visit, there were places where mudslides had covered some highways. On two occasions, we had to wait in traffic while road-clearing equipment opened the road. The longest wait was about 20 minutes when traveling through the mountains from Caracas to the town of La Victoria. The journey normally takes about an hour minutes, but this time about 90 minutes. Buses also travel these overland routes on regular schedules. Travel on them is inexpensive and are considered by most to be very reliable.
Air Travel: The Maiquetia Airport is very clean and extremely well-organized. Process through customs and baggage check was painless and swift. On my return trip I found the process to be the same with an examination of my checked baggage under my observation and double-checks of my carry-on items in the standard security line and also after arrival at my departure gate. Waits at ticket counters and security were less than 15 minutes. In the waiting areas are an ample number of shops and restaurants featuring local cuisine. Airport staff were patient, friendly and helpful without exception and in most cases, bilingual.
Just as I disavow any claim to being an experienced travel writer, I make no such claim to be a restaurant or food critic! But one of the delights of my visit to Venezuela was the excellent food I found everywhere. Caracas claims to have a greater variety of restaurants than any other South American city. La Flor de Castillo, a café next door to the hotel was a daily breakfast stop where I enjoyed the best café con leche I’ve ever had anywhere. Several cups of the stuff with a choice from their large selection of fresh baked pastries were delicious and very inexpensive. They, like many other Venezuelan cafes also have a great juice bar featuring a dozen or so fresh-squeezed fruit juices. I enjoyed other Venezuelan food like the empanadas, (a fried turnover made of corn flour and stuffed with cheese and beans); mini arepas – corn shells filled with cheese or shredded chicken; the cachapa (a sweet corn pancake served with cheese) and the delicious arepas (a hot round cornmeal biscuit) in which we hedonistically inserted a round of butter. I also loved guasacaca, a spicy avocado sauce as an accompaniment to these dishes and a delicious cold drink – guayaba from the guava fruit.
The food in Venezuela today is a mixture of African, native Indian, Caribbean and European cuisines with Caribbean influences which has evolved over the centuries. Corn, beans and rice are Venezuela’s staples. Corn is used to make a variety of pancakes. The arepas are fried or baked corn pancakes, either plain or with a filling. Fried and grilled fish such as trout, red snapper, baby shark (cazon), and shellfish such as oysters prawns and clams are popular and meats such as beef and chicken are common everyday foods. Goat, I am told, is preferred in certain regions and pork is primarily a food for Christmas. Domestic fruit and vegetables include mango, papaya , avocado, bananas, coconut, melon, pineapple and guava. Cassava, a root vegetable used to make bread, and plantains are cultivated and served with most meals. Other popular foods include yellow, black, and white beans, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, aubergine, cucumber, and many other vegetables, all grown domestically.
When eating in restaurants, imported dishes are often identified on the menu, distinguishing them from traditional, domestic dishes. When friends and I enjoyed a dinner at one of the more expensive restaurants in the city (where only a small minority of Venezuelans can afford to eat), I observed that *Imported dishes, doubly expensive, were recommended by the waiter and seemed to be favored among other patrons. In other restaurants, more popular with the majority of Venezuelan citizens, traditional food grown domestically is favored. Imported foods are just not cool with most Venezuelans. This is true not only because of their expense, but also due to Venezuela’s dependency upon imported food. That dependency was mostly due to suppression of domestic agriculture by corrupt regimes prior to the presidency of Hugo Chavez. This is changing as the Bolivarian government begins to enforce land reform which allows Venezuelan campesinos (farmers) to till land formerly lying dormant for decades under the control of wealthy landowners. Even eating out can be a political matter in Venezuela! I also noticed the sign, “We reserve the right to serve anyone” in the more expensive restaurants. My friends at dinner explained that this “right” is primarily reserved for indigenous people or other people of color if not accompanied by a white friend.
My exposure to Venezuela’s health care system was extremely limited and even with significant exposure, I would not be able to comment authoritatively. I did observe a surprising number of medical clinics along the streets of Las Minas de Baruto, a large barrio in Caracas where I spent one day. One was a CEMIP clinic (Central Medical) offering general services; others were specialty clinics for obstetrics, gynecology, dentistry, optometry and pediatrics clinics like Consulto de Pediatra on Calle Federacion. The Bolivarian government created the Simoncito project, which offers orientation to mothers during pregnancy and after giving birth; it provides medical care to babies until four years of age, when they entered a kindergarten. People I interviewed in the barrio were quick to attribute these new services to health programs created under the Chavez administration and said they were non-existent prior to his presidency. They told me they are now receiving quality health care they never had prior to the revolution. A good report on health care services in Venezuela can be found in www.greenleft.org.au/back/2004/610/610p21.htm A People’s Health System by Peter Maybarduk, Caracas, published in Green Left Weekly.
As stated in my first installment to this series, Touching the Revolution!, I found Venezuelans to be the best informed people I’ve ever met anywhere on international affairs. From the research scientists, faculty members and directors at IVIC to the folks on the street in the barrios, people are aware of what is happening in their own government and in foreign governments. They talk about their civic responsibilities of self-governance and articulate a cogent analysis of their relations with other nations. This well-informed populace is largely due to the new educational system installed under the Chavez administration. Writing for VHeadline, www.vheadline.com/readnews.asp?id=22149 Gustavo Pereira, of Radio Nacional de Venezuela (RNV), tells us that the new Bolivarian system created the “single-shift” Bolivarian Schools giving children access to breakfast, lunch, and snacks, medical attention, culture, computers and sports.
As of last July, there were over 3500 new Bolivarian Schools and many more in the pipeline. It doubled the education budget from 3%GDP to 7%GDP and also doubled the salaries of teachers and professors and created the Bolivarian University, where over fifteen thousand young people attend, many of them receiving government scholarships. Pereira reports that this system “created the Infocenters, where the people have free Internet access and it has established agreements with IBM and Cysco System in order to propel Venezuela to be the most advanced Latin American country in information technology.”
In Caracas, the town of La Victoria and in the barrios, I saw Internet cafés everywhere, jammed with people who are gleaning information and educating themselves on-line. Pereira explained what this system replaced:
“It outlawed the privatization of high school education, just as the rulers of the IV republic governments from the past had planned, a proposal that prohibited the entrance or remainder of low-income students to universities.”
I had many people, young and elderly, tell me that they are receiving education from high school to university levels to which they had no access prior to the Bolivarian system. I interviewed a young mother at Mission Ribas who had to drop out of high school for personal reasons and is now finishing high school and about to enter university because of the opportunity afforded by the program at Mission Ribas in Caracas. Another 21 year old woman, near completion of her 4th year at Bolivarian University, told me that she would never have been able to afford a college education prior to Chavez. These and other interviews will be published later in this series, “Touching the Revolution!”.
Venezuelan cities, towns and countryside are clean. I was struck with the clean streets, sidewalks and public places compared with those in Boston, New York and Washington D.C. Caracas is probably the most sanitary city I’ve ever visited. Finding as much as a cigarette butt on the street or sidewalk is unusual. One sees constant trash pickups by trucks throughout the city and overflowing trash cans do not exist. Unlike the low income areas of US cities, the streets and sidewalks of Las Minas de Baruto, a sprawling Caracas barrio I visited were also clean. But the reason for the clean environment is not only due to their garbage disposal system. Caracas, La Victoria, the countryside and the barrios are clean because the people accurately sense that the streets and sidewalks belong to them. They would no more litter their streets than they would their kitchen floor. Their pride in their country is palpable.
A new friend I made after my arrival, graciously served as an excellent interpreter for discussions and interviews I had with a cross-section of people in Caracas, in the barrios and in La Victoria. He visited Las Minas de Baruto with me for an entire day. When we entered the barrio, my friend introduced me to a policeman stationed near the entrance at one of the many mobile police stations. The officer shook hands and greeted me warmly. He invited me to explore the barrio and offered his services if I needed anything. People were warm, welcomed my visit and were eager to be interviewed. Their faces beamed with knowledge that they were governing themselves and not living under the oppression of the ruling elite of past governments.
The shops, grocery stores, internet cafes, clinics, basketball courts, car repair shops, and other establishments were alive and friendly. One family graciously invited me into their home. It was a well-kept 2 bedroom, flat of about 700 square feet, with a clean, comfortable living room, modern kitchen and bath. It was located among hundreds of others stacked tightly together on the side of a steep hill. I had a difficult time believing that these were the barrios about which I have read so much negative press. This family built and owned their own home and when I inquired about the cost of utilities, they told me “about US$1.40 a month. This is not to say that the people in the barrios do not have a hard life. Their lives are not easy, but they are industrious, many of them working two full time jobs. But I witnessed a contentment and energy that I rarely see among the poor folks in Boston where multiple families are jammed into small apartments that require 5-6 incomes to pay the rent. My interviews of two store owners and some of their customers in Las Minas de Baruto will be published in forthcoming installments of “www.axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/article_15785.shtml Touching the Revolution”.
Law Enforcement and National Emergency Response
Law Enforcement: I had a number of encounters with the Venezuelan National Guard and local police during my visit, mostly while asking directions. In every case, they were friendly, courteous, helpful and professional – a stark contrast to the demeanor of federal, state and local police in the United States. At no time did I experience or witness the signs of arrogance or rudeness to which one has become accustomed when dealing with US law enforcement. There was no evidence or any suggestion of an oppressive police state in Venezuela.
Emergency response: I happened to arrive in Caracas in the midst of historic rainfall that flooded large areas of land. Many people were displaced and some died in the floods. I witnessed the powerful response of the government as it came to the aid of thousands of flood victims. The government response was augmented by hundreds of volunteers who gave time and energy to help their fellow citizens. The national guard and police were employed to rescue people, taking them to large shelters where their needs were met. What I witnessed stood in sharp contrast to the report by veneconomy.com/eng/aldia/resumenOpina.asp?pub=1011 VenEconomy, an anti-Chavez media organization:
“The heavy rains that hit the country recently have shown up how seriously deficient the government is when it comes to management. It is clear, first of all, that there are no disaster response policies and, second, that the housing construction program has been completely neglected.”
“Deficient … management” simply does not fit what I have read and observed of the way the Bolivarian government does business. The government has an aggressive program underway to solve the problems of poor housing. Throughout the week of the flood, as the government … the people … provided relief to victims, I also watched the private media in Venezuela, controlled by those who hate the president, sledge hammer President Chavez, day and night — for not doing “enough”. I could not help but wonder whether their real concern was for the crises of the flood victims or for their personal loss of control of Venezuela’s wealth in 1998.
Security and Safety
When telling people in the US of my visit, one of the first things I hear over and over again is, “Oh, they’re having a lot of trouble down there” … or … “Be careful! It’s very dangerous there! Aren’t you afraid?.” I had also read the ominous warnings for travelers on the website of the US State Department. So I was especially cautious when I arrived at the airport and in Caracas. After my arrival in the city, however, I began to trust my own instincts as I do in any large city. I found that walking about did not portend any dangers that I would not expect find in any large US city. One person warned me, “Don’t walk down any dark alleys!” I assured him I would not do so and added, ”I also do not walk down dark alleys in Boston.”
One night in Caracas, with some time to spare, I took a long walk. My excursion carried me to the entrance of a barrio on Avenida Comoro, about 3 blocks from the hotel. I had been warned about walking alone at night, of course, but I’ve been familiar with various forms of urban dangers from 30 years of living in the city. I looked down the narrow avenue of the barrio and saw that it was well-lit with adults visiting and cooking food outside their homes, little children playing on the street and elderly folks sitting or walking alone. Men and women were talking in small groups and one group of men greeted me with “Buenas noches” and a smile. One of them spoke enough English for us to get by and soon he was interpreting for me and the others. We hung out together for about an hour and talked politics. They boasted about their city and country and lauded the work that the Chavez government is doing for them and their families. Any fears I may have had about going into this barrio had quickly evaporated during these encounters on Avenida Cormoro.
In contrast to my experience, the US State Department gives harsh warnings about the dangers that await the US citizen who thinks about visiting Venezuela. Their website carries frightening words like: “Caracas and other major cities in Venezuela are designated by the State Department as high-threat areas for crime”. They tell us that the crimes are usually “money oriented” and can occur “during daylight hours or at night” and that “Many criminals are armed with guns or knives and will use force.” They inform us that “Jewelry, particularly gold-colored, attracts the attention of thieves” and advise the traveler to “leave all such jewelry items, especially expensive-looking watches, at home”. The US State Department tells us that even valuables left in hotel rooms and safety deposit boxes are being stolen and that, “Armed robberies are common in urban and tourist areas, particularly in Caracas and Maracaibo. Criminal violence is on the rise. American citizens have been harassed, severely beaten or murdered during robberies. Travelers should exercise caution in displaying money and valuables.”
I ask, could these same things not be said about Los Angeles or any other major city in the United States? Let’s be honest — anyone can be assaulted, robbed, kidnapped or murdered just about anywhere. Society in the United States has become one of the most violent and dangerous in the world. Of course there is crime in Venezuela. We have to use common sense and common safety precautions wherever we go in the world. But especially considering political antipathies, one has to wonder about the motivation of the US State Department when it places us in fear of ever visiting Venezuela. Is it due to the government’s concern for our safety? Does it have anything to do with suppressing US tourism in Venezuela? Is the government fearful of US citizens gaining direct knowledge of democracy in action? Is the government trying to limit the flow of tourist dollars to Venezuela?
On your next vacation, consider visiting the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela! You may be amazed at the delights you will find in this modern and magnificent country. Enjoy the splendor of Venezuela’s flora, fauna, mountains, rivers, rain forest and sunny beaches. Don’t miss out on their scrumptious cuisine, fun shopping, glorious parks, museums and art galleries.
But more than any of these, visit the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and immerse yourself in the beautiful spirit of the people who will welcome you with a smile you will never forget. See self-governance in action.
Touch the revolution.
It can happen here, in the United States.
The next installment for this series (to be released on March 14, 2005) will be a report on my visit to www.ivic.ve/ Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas (IVIC), including interviews of research scientists, faculty and directors. IVIC is the country’s center for scientific research and university teaching in all the major disciplines and the advanced work they are doing places the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela well into the 21st Century. There work probes everything from high energy physics to preservation of life-giving herbs being lost to development in the Amazonian rain forests. Despite their academic achievement, the people at IVIC are not the stodgy academics one often finds in similar institutions in the US. They are affable, exciting and eager to share their knowledge with people from all socio-economic and academic backgrounds.
www.axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/article_16015.shtml This article was originally published at Axis of Logic