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.