This is Chávez Country: The Little Bully That Could

Our trip to Venezuela is winding down. For our last outing, our cousin, Marisol, has planned a day trip to the Hacienda Santa Teresa, where sugar cane is grown and used to make rum. It is in a pueblo called El Consejo, which is a 90-minute drive from Caracas.

I am told that El Consejo is the town in which my grandmother spent her childhood.  Tía Olivia says she visited the town a few years ago and found her mother’s house still standing, which I can believe, as El Consejo seems untouched by time. Row after row of charming little houses festively painted in bright hues of pinks, yellows and blues.

Sugar cane fields at the Hacienda Santa Teresa, which was founded in 1796

The heat is more intense here.  Once we arrive at the Hacienda Santa Teresa, we must wait for our tour time. We visit the gift shop where all kinds of rums are sold—orange-flavored rum, coffee-flavored, clear rum, premium rum, to name a few. For as little as $4.00 (U.S. funds) you can buy a bottle of rum.

Marisol tells me that when Venezuelans make a purchase of any kind—whether it be a loaf of bread or a new TV, they must present their “cédula” (a national photo ID). Even if they are paying in cash, they must show their identification. She is not sure why but assumes it’s just another way the government seeks to control the people, presumably by keeping track of what they are buying and even where they are making their purchases. I use cash to purchase a bottle of rum and the saleswoman asks for my cédula. When I tell her I’m an American and do not have a Venezuelan ID, she asks me for my passport number. I write down a fake number, and she doesn’t notice. The specter of Hugo Chávez hovers over everything.

While waiting for the rum tour to begin, my aunts begin an impromptu dance.

We spend the entire day at the rum hacienda, where there’s much to do—horseback riding, golf, listening to music at the bar, and even paintball. On the tour, we learn that the rum factory was founded more than 200 years ago. The tour lasts hours and multiple trolley rides across the hacienda.  By the time it’s over, we are all a bit exhausted and hot. Thankfully, our tour guides serve us refreshing, tall glasses of Cuba Libres.  We then head back to the city, trailed by a beautiful sunset. All that’s left to do, is pack and prepare for our journey home.

I came to Venezuela with apprehension and am about to leave, grateful for the time I was able to spend with family, yet also with a feeling of dread for their future. The U.S. State Department had unnerved me with its warnings about the country, and I came very close to canceling the trip.  The good times with family, though, were mired by the shadow of Chávez. His plan to transform education in order to raise a nation of socialist children is chilling. Victor says that this may be just the thing that will motivate Venezuelans to fight back.

For now, despite all the new rules and regulations, the essence of the Venezuelan people is still intact.  During my trip, I saw their determination to withstand any challenges or edicts thrown their way. They still go to nightclubs and take their kids to McDonald’s. They still like to shop and go to the beach. And I think of my aunt, Bertina. At the rum hacienda, as we listened to music from an outdoor sound system, she suddenly took Tía Olivia’s hand for an impromptu dance on the sidewalk.  Such genuine moments help to hold at bay the fear of what the future will bring.

But it’s a new year and for Venezuela, the future has arrived. Chávez has his new powers and the country holds its breath and waits. What will he do?  Like a little bully, he has been poking at the U.S., trying to push its buttons. For the most part it hasn’t worked. Largely ignored, he resents this country all the more. And to the American government, Chávez must seem like an annoying gnat. A silly nuisance.

Until now, perhaps. With his new powers, he’s become the little bully that could. So Chávez, take a bow. For you may yet have the last laugh.

This is Chávez Country: Family Reunion

Part Three: As my trip to Venezuela continues, the relatives begin to arrive for the family reunion. Until now, their faces have been frozen in time for me, but looking beyond the wrinkles, the gray hairs, I can see they are as I remember them.  Everyone talks at once. Everyone laughs and hugs each other closely, enjoying this precious time together. We snap photos by generation. There are many new family members I do not know, particularly the spouses and children of my cousins.  One cousin has just become a grandmother. She is the first in our generation to reach that milestone.

In the backyard, we take photos of each generation. This is the generation of my parents, whose absence is felt.

The reunion takes place in my uncle’s house, protected by the surrounding walls and barbed wire. I mill about, reveling in the excitement of being among them, nearly 100 it seems. Though not everyone is here, I’m finally able to show my son, Josh, just how large is our Venezuelan family. He, too, is enjoying himself. Though his Spanish is poor, many of our relatives speak English.  That evening some of the younger cousins take Josh to a nightclub and teach him to dance salsa. It is his first time.

Victor (names have been changed) introduces me to his wife, Elena. We chat and our conversation quickly turns to Hugo Chávez. I have often wondered how my family could stay in Venezuela with a government that is steadily moving toward socialism.  We all know how Chávez is trying to emulate his mentor, Fidel Castro.

“Sponsor your cousin,” Elena pleads.  At first I’m not sure if I’m hearing correctly, but she repeats it and gradually I realize she’s sincere. Until this moment I didn’t think that anyone in our family wanted to leave the country. After all, Venezuela is their home, where they have roots.

I start talking to Claudia and Belinda, Victor’s sisters, and ask them about Chávez.  Belinda is dissatisfied and feels at a loss. She tells me of family who have been kidnapped for ransom, and also carjacked (including her daughter who lost a leg as a result). Claudia is extremely worried.  Her concerns are for her young children. She explains how Chávez recently announced plans for overhauling Venezuela’s school curriculum in order to enhance his socialist ideology.  According to Claudia, Chávez also plans to wipe out from the text books, the last 40 years of Venezuelan history, as it was a period of democracy.  Other changes include the following new subjects:

•       Bolivarian Doctrine (designed to provide students with a Venezuela-centric curriculum, which means that learning about other countries and world history, will take a back seat)

•       Socialism in the 21st Century

•       Military Education

The red-shirted Chávez takes on education in order to better indoctrinate young minds. (Reuters)

Victor’s wife is eager to talk again.  We sit in a quiet corner of the living room. She leans in closer to me and, lowering her voice, tells me that one of my cousins is a “Chávista” (pro-Chávez). I am surprised and ask her who it is.  Raul, she says with assurance.

Raul is a second cousin of mine.  Our mothers were very close–spending time together,  spending time together gossiping and trading stories about their children.  Raul is in the backyard, drinking beer with the others. He joins in the laughter and reminisces about the old days with us.  In so many ways he’s just like us. Only now I see him in a different light.

Just to be sure, I ask Belinda if it’s true about Raul. She explains to me that when things are going your way, you love the government. But the moment things start to turn and they come into your home to ask you questions or take you away, then you see it differently.  Right now, Raul is receiving government contracts and is doing well for himself. That’s how it is right now, she adds ominously.

I start to wonder if one day Raul will be asked to report on any family whom he knows are not Chávistas.  A chill comes over me as I think this, but I know my brothers would say I shouldn’t worry about the what if’s.

Yet, my cousins tell me that Chávez keeps a blacklist of Venezuelans who in 2004 signed a petition to recall him as president. Chávez is already using this list to make life difficult for those who signed. These days, the question du jour is, “Did you sign the petition?” So to me, it’s all a matter of time. If you ask me, it’s a slippery slope, the path to dictatorship.

This is Chávez Country: Path to Tyranny

Part Two: Cousin Marisol (names have been changed) is a freelance journalist who has carefully planned our itinerary, to make the most of our stay in Venezuela. Today, we are going to the Teleférico on the top of Mt. Ávila.  It is one of the highest points in Caracas, overlooking the city which is located in a valley.

The bell captain at our hotel hails us a cab. Like most hotels in the U.S., there are taxis waiting outside for the guests.  These cabs, however, have been carefully preselected by the hotel. They are driven by trustworthy drivers and, for added security, they are unmarked and have tinted windows, which helps to ward off drive-by shootings. The thinking being that if a gunman doesn’t know who is in the car, they will be less likely to open fire.

One of the murals I came across, located by the entrance of the Central University of Venezuela.

As we ride to the Teleférico, I see more signs of  Hugo Chávez’ rule:  billboards and posters that thank him for the changes he has made. Some make the case for socialism by depicting people smiling broadly, walking hand-in-hand. I also see colorful murals lauding Chávez and his policies and  denouncing American Imperialism. As we drive along, I make a game of it by counting the pro-Chávez propoganda, but soon I lose count.  There are just too many.  Some of the slogans I notice include:

Apoya el Gobierno (Support the Government)

Ooo-Ah, Chávez no se vá” (a common chant, indicating that Chávez will not leave office)

“Contra el Imperialismo UNIDAD de Nuestra AMÉRICA” (Against Imperialism, unite for our Latin America)

I wonder how many find this display convincing. How long does it take to become indoctrinated? Just how many have become mesmerized by Chávez’ PR machine? As I ponder this, I can’t help but feel relieved that my parents are no longer around to see what is becoming of their country.

We arrive at our destination. I remember visiting the Teleférico as a child, but in recent years it has gone into disarray.  The government has taken over operations, though the Hotel Humboldt, located on the top of Mt. Ávila, and once one of Venezuela’s crowning achievements, remains closed.  Marisol has pulled a few strings so that today we will get a private tour.

Marisol has brought with her two of my mother’s siblings:  Tío Francisco, Marisol’s father, who is a retired pediatric doctor; and Tía Olivia, who now lives in a home run by nuns.

I remember that Tía Olivia once lived just a few blocks from the Palacio de Miraflores, the home of the Venezuelan President, much like our White House.  I ask her whether Chávez is living there now.

“No.  No one really knows where he lives or where he is on any one day,” she replies matter-of-factly. Marisol adds that this is, presumably, a security measure, and that Chávez lives in constant hiding. Apparently, he is fearful of lurking assassins.

Chavez' military patrols this tourist attraction.

We prepare to board the cable car that takes us to the top of Mt. Ávila. Once there, I notice the soldiers.  I’d already seen a few in Caracas.  But here they appear everywhere, carrying their rifles and wearing their red berets. Red being the color of the Socialist revolution. The soldiers are pacing or standing at attention as lookouts—protecting the Teleférico from what, I don’t know.  All I see are Venezuelan families and a few tourists. It is the soldiers themselves that seem threatening.

After our tour of the Hotel Humboldt, we lunch at one of the restaurants located on the mountain and are seated next to a table of soldiers celebrating a birthday.  As they sing “Cumpleaños Feliz,” many restaurant patrons join in, but, to me, the singing feels forced. Perhaps I’ve seen too many World War II movies, for I am associating this moment with a scene from “Casablanca,” in which German soldiers in Rick’s Café Américain sing their patriotic anthem and French loyalists drown them out by singing La Marseillaise. It is one of the most stirring, powerful moments of the film. Nervously, I consider standing up and singing the Venezuelan national anthem, which I learned as a child: “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo” (Glory to the Brave People). But fear prevents me, as there’s no telling whether the other patrons will join me in drowning out the soldiers. Where is Humphrey Bogart when I need him?

Time has stood still in the lobby of the Hotel Humboldt.

In the evening we go to Tío Francisco’s house. I lived in this neighborhood once, when I was attending private school here.  But now it’s different.  Walls with barbed wire have been built around the community’s periphery. There is a security guard at the entrance and each home has locked gates. The walls around my uncle’s house have broken bottles with jagged edges along the top, making forced entry unlikely. I wonder if I could live like this and accept what has become the new normal. And yet I know the answer. We are human after all, capable of doing anything to survive.

More cousins have joined us. We reminisce about the idyllic days of our youth. The conversation soon turns to politics and I sense that my cousins have resigned themselves to enduring life under Chávez. To them, he is an annoyance. A burr in their shoe. Quietly they pray that the U.S. intervenes and stops him. We change the subject and talk about the upcoming family reunion.

The anticipation of the reunion excites me. Though, these feelings are tempered by what I am beginning to see as Chávez’ path to tyranny. The signs are everywhere and there’s no escaping them.

At the reunion, I will find out more of what my family is feeling. Those that are preparing for uncertain times, and those that fear for their children’s future.  I will also learn that one of my cousins is a “Chavista” (pro-Chávez).

This is Chávez Country: Ruling by Decree

CARACAS. With President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez.

President Hugo Chavez, right, likes to link himself to Venezuela's Founding Father, Simón Bolivar, whose portrait hangs behind him.

It’s official. Hugo Chávez, you can take a bow. For, with the start of 2011, comes a new era for Venezuela. Just before Christmas, the Venezuelan congress gave Chávez total power to rule by decree, starting this month.  Yes, he now has carte blanche to legislate on everything–from the Internet and all other communications, to transportation, including the roadways. Which means, Venezuela is now under a dictatorship.

And while this may mean little to most Americans, to me it means family. And uncertainty, as I wonder what will happen to my loved ones–my elderly aunts and countless cousins. Some already have left and headed to such places as Spain,  Mexico, Australia and the United States.  But most are still there. Too elderly to travel. Too set in their ways. Too difficult to leave. For many, wanting to go is not enough. It is difficult to obtain the necessary papers, visas.

A few hold on to the belief, or hope, that this too shall pass. But so far, it hasn’t. Venezuela’s illustrious leader, Hugo Chávez has been president for 11 years, with no end in sight.

You don’t hear much about the travails of Venezuela in the U.S. media (except perhaps when Chávez, says something incongruous, like referring to President George W. Bush as “the devil“). But now that he has been given unlimited powers, this may all change.  What more could Chávez want of his people? How many more ways can he constrain their lives? And just how long before the iron curtain comes down once and for all? I, for one, plan to stay tuned.

In recent years, I’ve returned to Venezuela twice. During my first visit, the first in nearly 35 years, I kept a journal.  What follows are my observations of Chávez Country.

January 2007: With much trepidation I embarked on my journey to Venezuela. It all started the summer before, when I, along with my siblings decided to make the trip. I felt uneasy about going, largely due to the many news reports about Chávez–his obsessive adoration of Fidel Castro, plus his manic hatred of the U.S. Though all you need do is read the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory on Venezuela and it’s enough to make you want to ask for a refund on your plane ticket.  Here’s a snapshot:

“Violent crime in Venezuela is pervasive…The country’s overall per capita murder rate is cited as one of the top five in the world…official statistics have shown alarming increases in kidnappings throughout the country… Armed robberies take place throughout the city, including areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists. Well-armed criminal gangs operate widely, often setting up fake police checkpoints.“

My sister says the State Department exaggerates, but I was ready to cancel.  Yet I was told not to overreact. That as long as we  avoided certain neighborhoods, such as the center of Caracas and tourist areas, we’d be ok.  I was hoping to take my son, Josh, who’d be traveling with us, to see the home of Venezuela’s Founding Father, Simón Bolívar. I remember seeing it as a kid, but like much of Caracas, it was no longer a safe place to visit.  So I boarded the plane and decided I’d have to see this country for myself.

Day One: The State Department’s web site indicates that, “Incidents of taxi drivers in Caracas overcharging, robbing, and injuring passengers are common.”  Given this, it is best to be picked up at the airport by someone you know and trust.  Which is why when we land, Victor (names have been changed for obvious reasons), a cousin who makes his living as a chauffer, meets us at the airport.

For 22 years, Victor worked for PDVSA, the government-owned petroleum company. But in 2002, there was a national strike and employees of PDVSA went on strike too.  The strike lasted three months and ended with Chávez firing all the strikers at PDVSA.  Chávez also made it against the law for any other employer to hire the strikers.  More than 20,000 people were affected, including Victor.  Without any prospects, Victor began to drive his car for hire.

I learn that we have to take “El Camino Viejo” (the old road) to Caracas because the bridge that connected to the newer, more direct road, collapsed a few years earlier.  El Camino Viejo is only two lanes with a rather steep incline. Trucks are parked along the shoulder and Victor explains that this is because trucks are prohibited from traveling this road during select times of the day, this being one of them.  So they remain on the shoulder until it’s their turn to use the roadway.

I decide to ask Victor about the situation in Venezuela.  He quickly frowns as his mood changes.  He is trying to save up enough money to leave, he tells me.  He and his wife are eager to start anew somewhere else and frustrated because they are stuck for the time being. Getting an appointment at the embassy takes time.  So does saving up enough money to go. It’s a process. Despite this, I see resilience in Victor’s eyes. That, and a steadfast resolve to make the most of his situation.

Our drive into Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, continues. I find myself looking keenly out the window, searching for signs of change and signs of tyranny.  I also look for reminders of the past, hoping to rekindle memories of the Venezuela of my youth.

Next Up: Path to Tyranny