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.