Entire World Has Cause to be Concerned About What Happens in Venezuela
Obviously we can't take the campaign squabblings of the United States' Republican and Democratic duopoly too seriously. The Israel/Palestine and Pakistan/India conflicts are epic, but these are terroritorial stand-offs between nations, not domestic political contests. From a purely human rights perspective, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and some West African nations are probably more compelling, but nowhere is there so much at stake in the competition for power among existing political actors than in Venezuela.
The dramatis personae include a charismatic and polarizing president wielding what he calls a "revolutionary" social program, a media that slams him mercilessly and incites the people to revolt, Venezuela-based multinational moguls such as Gustavo Cisneros, various oil executives, a union with anti-government leadership, the AFL-CIO that supports it financially, Merrill Lynch, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the U.S. government, a decentralized collection of community organizations accused of being the Venezuelan president's shadow militia, and--according to some reports--a group of right-wing paramilitary death squads spilling over from neighboring Colombia. But most importantly, there is "el pueblo," with its deep ideological divisions along class and racial lines.
With this impressive cast, it is unconscionable that U.S. editorials and reports on the region should be so shallow. With very few exceptions, they all work from the same script: Chavez is an autocratic demagogue who is bad news for his people, and opposition forces should use constitutional processes to get rid of him. End of story. This is a very controversial point of view, but it is served up as fact.
And so, information from certain contacts within both the U.S. and Venezuelan governments made it irresistable for me to hop a flight to Caracas. It will be impossible to track down all of the tantalizing leads that remain shamefully uninvestigated. I'm sure I'll find both more and less than I expect to find. But Venezuela deserves a serious attempt at more in-depth scrutiny than journalists as a species have been willing to give it. The entire world has cause to be concerned about what happens in Venezuela.
First impressions: Venezuelas beauty slaps the unprepared visitor across the face. Colossal mountains retreat from the coast just far enough to allow the beach s blazing white sands a little stretch room before being licked up by the lapis lazuli waters of the Caribbean. Charles Hardy, a self-described "old gringo priest"-turned-journalist who will function as my guide and interpreter for a couple of days, calls Venezuela "the Caribbean s best-kept secret."
My first glimpse of Caracas brings home the divisions of Venezuelan society--segregtion does not seem too strong a word. The city is snuggled in a valley between two mountain ranges. The poor and indigneous live in the hills; the middle and upper classes, mostly Latino, live in the valley below.
The architecture says it all. The buildings of the city proper look as if a tumor had been removed from Le Corbusier's butt and transplanted in the soil of the valley, which then sprouted buildings. Whenever I go out, I play a game to see if I can spot an actual attractive edifice (skyscrapers don't count), and I'm shocked to find that there are in fact one or two. But there is no question that the intent of the designs is to make quarters that are sturdy fortresses yet still reflect a kind of urban chic.
Meanwhile, the people in the hills live in what are called "ranchitos," which are basically concrete, mud, and brick slums piled on top of the mountainsides as well as each other. These barrios are ramshackle and in great danger of sliding off the mountain during the rainy season, but I admire the way they have integrated themselves into the topography to the point that they seem like an organic part of it. It is a testament to them that the flavor they add to the cityscape makes Caracas so beautiful inspite of all the ugly and already dated architecture at its core. "The greatest architect in the world couldn't have built what the people built," Hardy tells me admiringly.
Apparently the valley girls and boys don't see it that way. As a taxi takes us down the central freeway, Hardy points out the high concrete walls along both sides that were built several years ago to keep locals and tourists from having to endure the sight of the barrios of the poor.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree to which the class divisions in Venezuela are about race. Alex Main, an American expat who does press relations for the Venezuelan government, tells me that the way the dark-skinned poor are treated by the Latin upper crust is in a way reminiscent of South Africa. At first this seems like an outrageous statement. (President Chávez, by the way, is mestizo*.) But some hours later I meet Rojelio, a Latino, who is a lower-middle-class resident of Chacao, one of the nicer parts of town close to my hotel.
Rojelio says that he used to like President Chávez when he first came to office, but since the economy doesn't seem to be getting any better, he's changed his mind. He's trying to move his family to Spain because there are "no opportunities in Venezuela." But he sees little point in the oppositions demonstrations. "The way to get rid of Chávez is not with hate, but with love." This launches him into a paean to the possibilities of universal love and human respect.
But as we talk, he makes a casual observation. "They should just clear out the ranchitos. Clear them away. The people there are miserable anyway."
* In Mexico and much of Latin America, "mestizo" is mainly used to refer to Native American+ European origins. In Venezuela and other Caribbean countries where there were significant slave populations, the term takes in African origins as well.
Brad Carlton is a South Carolina-based investigative reporter. He is on a month-long fact-finding journey in Venezuela and will be posting further dispatches on this website.
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This story was published on July 17, 2002.