Sunday, January 29, 2006
A Tale of Two Countries;
Gabriele Ross and Goudarz Eghtedari
January 29th, 2006.
It is Christmas Day and our second day in Caracas. We are invited for hallacas - yes, this Venezuelan version of tamales is heavenly - in the home of a group of people we have never met before. The parents drive 30 km to get us. After getting lost quite a few times in Caracas traffic, we finally arrive in a row house way outside the capital. The home belongs to their niece, it is a two and a half bedroom brick building, where three families are staying for the holidays. The small back yard is half covered with one palm tree pot, a few turtle pets, and an outdoor fireplace.
The sound of crickets reminds me of homes in Southern Teheran, a resemblance that I will continue to find more and more of during the next few days.
Nobody seems to have a problem with our eagerness to turn the conversation to politics, after all that is our purpose for coming to Venezuela on vacation. The son of the family, a junior IT engineer, opens the conversation by asking what we want to hear. Recalling a conversation with a US leftist, who went to teach THEM what to do, he had seen it all and hence was skeptical of the intention of Americans coming here.
There is the lead violinist in the Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Not a Chavista and "totally apolitical" as he declares. He is happy that the state is now paying him as it should and on time – apparently a stark difference from how things used to be a few years ago, when in the mid 1990s general strikes were a routine bargaining tool to get the late pay checks by public employees (World 1996). He shows us an illustrated book about the history of Venezuela's Youth Symphony, where he teaches music for a living. A rainbow of young musicians - white, black, brown and anything in between - proudly looks at us from the pages. When we point out that performing classical music still is pretty much an elitist thing in the US, our host replies: "We apply the symphony the same way the US applies sports, the focus is on underprivileged youth." Living in a society where even financing a band teacher is almost impossible makes us think about his comment with a sense of envy.
And then there are the entrepreneurs; Just a little over 20 years old but with an optimism that amazes us. One has just started his own web hosting and internet service company. He is not a pro-government per se, but very well informed on world events and confident that things in Venezuela are moving along for the better. He appreciates that one of the first things “dictator” Chavez did when he took office was to end the military draft for men. The younger sister, who has just graduated from a hotel management school and is bound for South Carolina for a 9 month internship, is hoping to get one of the low-interest government loans to build a hotel as a cooperative with family members. She tells us how it bothers her when some of her classmates complain about the government, while at the same time they have no problem with enjoying free university education, including books and uniforms, and universal health coverage. In fact: she was recently hospitalized and is grateful for the free and good care she received. This family used to live in the US, while their father attended graduate school in Texas. They have kept their English proficiency by watching satellite channels and American movies.
Last but not least there is the old man himself: with a graduate degree in agricultural engineering from the United State. A solid socialist, who finally sees some of his dreams come true. He now teaches rural development and lives in the Andes. He has direct experiences of the situation and no illusions about the challenges of rural poverty, multiplied by migration and urbanization. But for the first time in his life he sees a program to address these issues and a chance for grand scale change for the better.
Subsidizing and keeping gas prices low in Venezuela has caused maladies similar as to those that exist in Iran, such as over-consumption of fossil fuel and urban pollution. Although Venezuela, like Iran, has a couple of car assembly plants, the aged fleet especially of the public transportation has added to the air pollution. Once, while maneuvering through smog and a jungle of vehicles on the Avenida Liberador, we ask one of our friends about the purpose of the disproportionately huge and ugly high risers of the Parque Central, and she responds; “we have had two dictators in our history and those are the only leaders who built anything in this country.” Her fascination with dictatorship daunts on me when I think of my fellow Iranians’ same longing for a charismatic humanistic dictator, an oxymoron in itself. She justifies her belief by referring to instability and crime on the streets and the story that during the dictatorship nobody dared to commit crimes, which might have cost them their life or brought long prison terms. The first dictator, General Juan Vicente Gomez, was one of the leaders of the early twentieth century, who wanted to force modernization from the top, like Reza Shah and Ata Turk did in the Middle East.
In 1908, Gomez who was vise president at the time, overthrew the Venezuelan Castro, becoming the most powerful and absolute "caudillo" in Venezuelan history. The main aspects of the Gomez administration were the creation of the military school and the beginning of oil exploitation. This dictatorship, which lasted until Gomez death in 1948, was both the climax and the epilogue of the "caudillismo" age.(Saavedra 2000)
After a series of overthrows and the typical resulting "juntas," Venezuela saw the second dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez, who ruled the country from 1952 until 1958. During his term in power he built the road network, airports, many high rise buildings and a freeway system in Caracas. After him came chaos and desperation for democracy, guerilla war, coup d’Etats, financial problems and social injustice. This continued until the mid 70s, when the civil government of Carlos Andres Perez came to power. In the course of his first term of presidency he nationalized Venezuelan Oil. It is worth noting that Venezuela and Iran were among the founders of the Organization of the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC). The celebrated nationalization of the oil industry in 1976 boosted nationalist feelings, just as it had in Mexico in 1938, or in Iran of 1952. Perez, a long-time leader of the social-democratic party called Democratic Action (AD) was elected again in 1988 as president, but this time he began implementing a neo-liberal agenda that created serious dissatisfaction amongst the poor and workers. Four years into his presidency the population below the poverty line rose to 66% compared to 36% in the mid 1980s. In 1992 an unsuccessful military coup by then parachute commander Hugo Chavez demonstrated the critical level of people’s opposition to the existing order. While his legal troubles had no ostensible connection to his neo-liberal policies, the pain those policies inflicted helped turn popular opinion against him at a most inopportune time. Finally, in 1993, Perez was indicted and suspended for misappropriation of millions of dollars, and the 81 year old former president Rafael Caldera, a founding member of the conservative social-Christian party Copei, was elected as head of state. Shortly afterwards he started a new party called Convergencia, a breakaway anti neo-liberal faction of the party he had founded half a century ago. With the support of the leftist Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and a dozen smaller groups and parties, he promised to hold back the tide of privatization, deregulation, budget cuts and labor discipline that have defined the neo-liberal agenda and were the undoing of the 1989-1993 government of his predecessor(Ellner 1998).
During Caldera's first two years in office he ordered the release of Hugo Chavez and other military officers jailed for the 1992 coup attempt. He tried to govern as somewhat of a Christian populist, but in an attempt to attract needed foreign capital to his cash-strapped country, he later acceded to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that would cut federal spending and ease the rules of foreign investment. Venezuela was a latecomer to neo-liberalism, largely because oil money cushioned the government from pressures to privatize. In the following years the level of cuts in social services pushed the poor even further downwards and widened the income gap.
Chavez was first elected in December 1998 with 56 percent of the vote and began his presidency in February 1999, when 80% of the people were living below the poverty line. He openly proclaimed his desire to transform Venezuela into a nation based on democratic socialism as an alternative to its capitalist past. However, his policies are closer to European style social democracy than to a textbook type socialist state. Hence, since he took office, contrary to main stream media claims, the private sector accounts for a larger percent of the total economy than before his election.(Lendman 2006)
Venezuela today, under Hugo Chavez Frias, is charged with the spirit of the vision of Simon Bolivar, the Caracas-born 19th century general who defeated the Spanish, liberated half of South America, believed in redistributive social policies and a united South America.
Chavez and his Movement for the Fifth Republic Party (MVR) has started a mass social and political revolution based on participatory democracy and social justice. A constitutional assembly was elected after Bolivarian circles around the country discussed and developed new proposals for the constitution. Finally the new constitution was put to a referendum and passed by a solid majority of the Venezuelan people. Venezuela's oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), the backbone of the economy, is state owned. Nonetheless, instead of recycling the nation's petrodollars to the U.S. as past administrations have done, Chavez is using them to expand the Venezuelan economy and fund his social programs. In a nation where 80 percent of the people are poor by any measure, Chavez is a populist hero (Lendman 2006). One can see a similar trend with the coming to power of populist-President Ahmadinejad after the period of neo-liberal-leaning economic policies of Iranian government in the past 16 years. Of course there are huge differences between the two presidents in how they approach their agenda; one uses theocracy and militia while the other uses participatory democracy.
Despite all efforts however, the major gap between the poor and wealthy has continued the serious social disarray that can easily be seen, as you raise your head to look at the hills surrounding Caracas.
These hills are generally occupied by thousands of slums ironically called barrios. Barrio in Spanish means neighborhood, but here the term is used only for poor houses built on top of each other. It is very much about class; the stark contrast between the barrios and the very wealthy neighborhoods guarded by gun men are a testimony to that sacred divide. Having seen the slums of for example Tehran, Ankara and even US and European cities, we fail to be shocked though. Here the structures are made of stone and cement, not card board. The South American influenced colorful paint jobs are a testimony to the permanent character. While other governments make a sport out of periodically raiding and "cleaning" the squatted slums, the Venezuelan government has handed out land titles, subsidized food bodegas, and built community health clinics staffed with Cuban medicine doctors exchanged for oil. Meanwhile the very fancy and expensive malls of Caracas overflow with happy middle class shoppers, the top floor being reserved for well-dressed teenagers hungry for the latest US made movies. These are two clearly separated worlds that never seem to cross paths.
It is understandable that the Barrios play a major role in support of the Bolivarian Republic, as it is officially known. Community organizations, including grass root radio stations and clubs, have mobilized the support for President Chavez, including during the US-backed coup d’Etat of April 11th, 2002. These same people also came out in support of Chavez during the 64-day oil strike in 2003 and defeated a recall referendum in August 15th, 2004 by 60% voting "NO!" The result of that referendum was certified to be fair and accurate by President Jimmy Carter and his Center which observed the electoral process (Carter 2004). In fact statements made by President Carter in a Press conference in Caracas totally discredited claim by opposition and US media that an autocratic regime violates the human rights of the people in Venezuela. Other sources we have talked to also indicated that for instance the government provides grants for funding of community radios with technical training offered to grass root organizations and cooperatives. It is very hard to believe that a dictatorship would allow and even encourage this kind of public broadcasting free of charge and control.
A drive through the insane traffic of Caracas means taking a strange tour through the revolutionary happenings of recent history: Here is the overpass where the shoot-out happened that was captured in "The Revolution Will Not be Televised." Here is the freeway that was blocked by the opposition, until the Chavistas from the nearby barrio came down for a fight. That could have ended in a blood bath, would not somebody have suggested settling the encounter in a soccer match instead, needless to point out who easily won the game. At the end of the day the TV stations showed the dark Chavista woman from the barrio hugging her bleach blond compatriot from the “country club” part of town. It really does not seem to be about ethnicity thought. There are few Venezuelans who don't display the mix of African, Indigenous, European and Arab ancestry. And different than in the US, the mix is reflected everywhere, be it in commercials or the displays of a Black Holly Family in tropical nativity scenes.
When we first heard the term "Missiones" we were instantly turned off because of the religious implication. The Bolivarian missions are however social programs to be implemented in stages and include education, food security, access to free or affordable health care, provision of housing, identification cards, indigenous rights, cultural and heritage preservation, land reform, rural development, science, socio-economic transformation and veteran and military employment. We learned more about the missions in a puppet show for children in the Plaza Bolivar in Caracas, complete with catchy tunes explaining the whole thing.
Propaganda? Sure. But then we are not so sure if it is all that wrong to explain to a child that he or she has the constitutional right to access health care and that literacy is important. A significant contrast to the former Soviet-style propaganda is that instead of repeating the mantra about what the system is doing for people, the emphasis is on what their rights are. The latter is a definite success story. In fact a significant number of parents shuffle their offspring to the front row, apparently because they want children to learn about this project. Not the picture of a "dictatorship" by any standard... The private press and TV, which surprisingly constitute the majority of Venezuelan media, are of course highly critical of the program - and apparently free to be so. As outside observers we notice hours and hours of programming critical of the government, ridiculing the President and his Bolivarian supporters, including constant jokes about their way of talking and even their looks and appearance--another reminiscence of the 24 hour Persian TVs in exile. Nevertheless, looking at the opposition propaganda machine we fail to find any alternative proposal.
Venezuela and Iran have stark similarities in their current situation and contemporary history. Oppressive regimes have caused an ongoing struggle by the people for equality, democracy and rule of law. Oil was discovered at about the same time period in both countries and similarly became the main source of economic development, despite the availability of other opportunities. Furthermore both countries experienced the economic challenges of low oil prices in the 80s and 90s, which resulted in cuts in social services and in even more marginalization of the poor.
The Neoliberal agenda and IMF mandates for privatization called for similar strategic moves. But national pride in the public ownership of oil would have not allowed either country to abruptly privatize. Nevertheless, similar plans for privatization of oil industry under the label of opening the fields to foreign investment, were covertly pursued. In Venezuela’s case the so called “opening” of the mid 1990s had three modalities: The first allowed for the foreign management of marginal wells--a term used for wells with less than the 15,000 barrels per-day limit defined so in the United States. The second modality allowed for investment in non-conventional oil, specifically from the Orinoco Oil Belt, which requires vast sums of capital and untested sophisticated technology. The third part of the opening, known as Shared Profits, opened conventional oil fields to foreign capital, which truthfully should be called privatization of oil. The government somewhat misleadingly labeled the plan high risk investment. In fact, exploration is anticipated to be costly, but the risk is relatively low. Prior to bidding, PDVSA (Venezuelan National Petroleum Company) had undertaken preliminary explorations of the blocks that were auctioned off, and the findings were handed over to the winning bidder—in effect minimizing the risk (Ellner 1998). Needless to say that in Iran during the Rafsnjani and Khatami’s presidencies this model was followed as well; i.e. with foreign investment in various Persian Gulf oil reserves.
Caracas and the couple of coastal towns we visited had significant private business enterprise that showed all the rumors about the threat of the Bolivarian republic to the private sector must be baseless. Prior to our travel however, we were mainly warned countless times about the crime in Venezuela. As elsewhere in Latin America, crime rates in Venezuela have skyrocketed in correlation with growing poverty, which has nearly doubled over the past two decades. At the time of Chavez’s election as president in 1998, 62% of Venezuelans lived below the poverty line, while prices for basic foodstuffs had risen beyond the reach of 75% of the population. Crime at the time had risen just as dramatically. Since 1990, the murder rate had increased by 73%. Assaults were up 16%, and robberies had jumped 26% (Ungar 1996). A profile of the prison population, overwhelmingly poor and young, also reflects the linkage between growing crime and poverty. Consequently the illiteracy rate was at an all time high at the beginning of Chavez’ term, but today the rate of literacy stands at approximately 99%--a significant improvement due to the education and literacy programs by volunteer work of members of the Mision Robinson I & II. In the Americas, only Venezuela and Cuba have virtually eliminated illiteracy. In the U.S., the Department of Education estimates that over 20% of the population is functionally illiterate (Lendman 2006). Anyhow, we ended up regretting having paid so much attention to all the warnings about being robed, raped and killed in Caracas. We walked all over the city, took the clean, reliable and dirt-cheap Metro at night - and absolutely nothing happened to us.
Venezuela certainly is a huge, diverse and beautiful country. The Museum of Contemporary Art is well stocked with impressive artworks tackling issues from abortion to urban violence. The main exhibition at the time of our visit was dedicated to the annual contest of artwork from different regions of Venezuela. Different medium from paintings, photography and sculptures to very impressive video presentations with a variety of themes were on display. In addition there is an obvious revival of Venezuelan theater, film and music that is supported by one of the numerous laws passed by the legislation, which regulates among other things that a percentage of locally produced music should be aired in between the foreign hits.
We spent the day before New Years swimming above a coral reef in the Caribbean, the neon colors of the birds match those of the fish. Hundredths of Venezuelans were obviously having a great old time at the beach, just like those we encountered when we took the cable car up Mount Avila. Both of these experiences revived my Iranian nostalgia of tochal tele-cabin and Caspian coastlines.
Further away from the capital there obviously are the tourist heavens of Margarita Islands and more genuine and naturally preserved Andes and the Amazon regions, which we were told are extraordinarily beautiful. If we could add to the missions, it would be one about environmentalism: the very beautiful but fragile environment does not seem well protected, garbage disposal is an obvious problem, recycling is absent and in a country where gasoline is cheaper than water, everybody drives like mad.
We truly hope more people go to Venezuela to see the "reality," or the many manifestations thereof, for themselves before anything happens to that country. We also hope that the fact that the US administration is pre-occupied with the civil war they unleashed in Iraq continues to mean that no CIA sponsored coup is in store for another South American country. Meanwhile, elections of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Michelle Bachelet in Chile and the leading run by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the socialist mayor of México city, in Mexico’s presidential elections, give the Venezuelan government more assurance that their path is being followed by other nations in the Americas. From what we saw, things in Venezuela are pretty normal and as stable as in any other similar country. The people of Venezuela go on about their business and have as much fun, music and good food (and of course sex) as they can.
Carter, J. (2004) Last Phase of the Venezuelan Recall Referendum: Carter Center Report, August 21, 2004, http://www.cartercenter.org/doc1807.htm
Ellner, S. (1998) The Politics of Privatization. NACLA Report on the Americas Volume, http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/42/170.html DOI:
Lendman, S. (2006) Venezuela’s Bolivarian Movement: Its Promise and Perils. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1645#top Volume, DOI:
Saavedra, A. (2000). "Venezuelan History." 1/29/06.
Ungar, M. (1996). "Venezuela's Explosive Penitentiary Crisis." NACLA - Report on the Americas(Sept/Oct 1996).
World, Weekly News. (1996) Workers demand back pay. Workers around the world: 12/12/96 Volume, DOI:
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