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25 July, 2004

    By Glen Roberts from Maracaibo: After a month in Venezuela, three weeks before the August 15 YES or NO vote to recall Hugo Chavez, I'm way past ready to move on. I've absorbed about as much as I'm prepared to, and it's hot. I'll let Jimmy Carter and his crew watch the ballot box procedure without me. I've been stuck for a week, which is a week too long, in Maracaibo, trying for the last four days to get a seat on a 5 a.m. bus to Cartagena.
    The only thing romantic or exciting or picturesque or even historic about Maracaibo is its name. A large iguana crossed my concrete path in a hot and seatless plaza today, as if to remind me I'm at least in the tropics, but a gopher would have better suited the San Joaquin Valley ambiance of Maracaibo.
    Venezuelans are desperately hooked on products, fashion, money, clothes, cosmetics, tall buildings, cars, yuppie activities, anything advertised on TV. Because they are oil rich, gas costs 18 cents a gallon, which makes everything cheap, highways are smooth and fast, main boulevards are well paved and raggedly lined with every kind of modern product and fast food outlet, often in the ground floors of tall, modern buildings.
    But I have to tell you that, besides being surprisingly modern, Maracaibo, in 2004, is also dirty and trashy. Like Caracas. Piles of trash and garbage are not uncommon in either city. A wide circling swath of Caracas and most side streets and sidewalks in Maracaibo are in a state of third world ruin. And upper and middle class people everywhere, are scared silly of the night and the poor one newspaper claims take over and stalk the night streets "like vampires" (seeking vengeance for centuries of gross inequality, I would inject, though few seem to think of that angle).
    Now please remember I wrote this in 2004 when Hugo Chavez had only been in office for 5 years - a short time to work any magic - which is why he wanted to and did end term limits. And many people I talked to thought he was making a good start. And based on better sources than US embedded media ever use, I think his good start continued to the day he died and beyond. But, since I haven't been back since then, all I'm telling you in this chapter is that the US media comparison between Cuba and the rest of Latin America was ridiculously dishonest in 2004, the US media certainly haven't changed, so, however improved things may be now in Venezuela, the true difference between Cuba and the rest of Latin America probably hasn't changed, either.
    My first contact with Venezuela was a Venezuelan I met in Cuba, who warned me not to go outside at night and not to trust anyone. The taxi driver, who took me and a Colombian I'd met on the plane from Cuba from the airport up a canyon to central Caracas between slopes covered with poor "ranchos" piled one on top of another like Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings, told us not to go outside at night and not to trust anyone. He told us the hotel recommended by the guy in Cuba cost too much and wasn't safe, but the one he was taking us to was well fortified and safe - inside.
    Actually, it was an overpriced hotel that probably gave him a kickback. He was one of the people he'd warned us not to trust. We moved out the next day. But I tended to trust the cherubic bellboy, who told us he was a "worker" and therefore enthusiastically supported Chavez. But he also warned us about the night and his treacherous countrymen. Since he always got off after midnight, he always went home in a taxi.
    Strangely though, there were a lot of people on the night streets. Who were they? Why weren't THEY afraid? Our greeting to Caracas coming off the freeway was a living statue, a chica on a high spot in the center strip, shirt wide open, holding up and offering her bare tits as if they were on sale.
    But the advice of the hour was, don't buy anything outside the hotel walls until morning, and maybe not even then. The hotel manager, who urgently warned us not to venture back out until we'd survived the night, then invited himself to our table in the hotel's inner-sanctum bar/restaurant to rail incoherently in almost Italian Spanish against Castro, Chavez, and communism. When I told him nobody I've met in Cuba is afraid of his neighbors or of the night, he told the Colombian, "I don't talk to communists," stood, stuck out his arm, and "heiled" "Il Duce."
    An advertising executive I met next day, who recited the same propaganda about Cuba that Americans are fed, and who also warned me not to go out at night and not to trust anyone, then declared herself "enchanted" by capitalism. Neither she nor the hotel fascist apparently saw any connection between their unquestioning anti-communism and their fear of the poor.
    In Caracas (which is like Miami without a beach and from which I quickly fled back downhill to the coast), in Macuto (an almost unspoiled old Portuguese fishing and beach town I clung to for a week), in Ciudad Bolivar (a dreary, dry, primitive sprawl, oddly complemented by one, long, totally modern strip of commercial development along the river front), in Valencia (a bullfighting town), in Trujillo (a town more like Pamplona than Pamplona except it has no bullring), in Merida (a comfortable, friendly town, 1/5 old and pretty and 80% Caracas in the Alps, where I found myself in the line of fire as a shooting cop chased two youths down a steep stairway past me into the local Casbah, where he was afraid to follow them), and in Maracaibo (the Fresno of Venezuela), I've found nobody who will contradict the twin national mantras: don't go outside at night and don't trust anyone - oh, except two longtime foreign residents who both called it baloney.
    Anyone arriving in Venezuela from Cuba will be impressed by all the products available. The stores are plentiful and full of merchandise and the countless umbrellaŽd ambulante tables that choke the sidewalks sell more of virtually the same stuff. But this is a shallow and redundant kind of prosperity. Everything is repeated over and over, two Palacios de Blumer in one block in the Sabana Grande area of Caracas, for instance, and merchants aren't really very busy. Meanwhile, cops and military with big guns are also abundant, and so are street people, who have been murdered in their sleep almost nightly while I've been here by someone using big rocks to crush their skulls.
    All the stores, so redundantly abundantly stocked, are gated and guarded and zipped up behind metal barricades at night. I bought a Caracas city map at midday through a small window in the heavily padlocked door of a gas station accessory store. People peer through protected panes before buzzing me into restaurants, cyber-cafes, bookstores. The Grupo de Reaccion Inmediato go around, two on a slow motorcycle, swinging their watchful eyes back and forth under the rims of helmets bearing the acronym, GRIM. The country is clearly sick.
    I don't expect the much ballyhooed Carter observation team, which will arrive at the tail end of history to "observe" the ballot box procedure, to understand anything American media don't want Americans to understand. Carter and I were both observing an election (very separately) in Nicaragua in 1996, where he equated ballot box procedure with democracy and found everything dandy.
    He completely missed - was incapable of noticing - the gigantic fraud which he participated in: the wall-to-wall lie that nothing mattered but democracy - that any result had to be right if it resulted from a fair and "transparent" ballot box procedure. He was and remains incapable of understanding that the important thing then was the fate of the Sandinista revolution, and the important thing here is that Venezuela, which is sick from what President Kirchner of Argentina recently called "an overdose of neoliberalism" (and from centuries of extreme inequality), needs somehow to move into at least the socialist phase of a real revolution.
    Whether Hugo Chavez is the most likely catalyst for that I don't know, but, at this point, he probably has to be kept in office to keep whatever leftward momentum there is alive. The result of the election Carter considered politically correct in Nicaragua, probably the most democratic country on Earth, was that they kept sliding toward their present status as second poorest country in the hemisphere.
    If Carter sees the phrase "NO VOLVERAN" spray painted on some walls, he won't understand it. I don't know if any of the rigidly (and it's starting to seem eternally) certified set of same-old, same-old spokesmen for what passes for the left these days who are coming with him will understand it, either. But it's more important than democracy.
    The print and electronic media in Venezuela have been overwhelmingly, often irrationally, against Chavez, blaming him for everything from the yellow scum covering Lake Maracaibo to things like poverty and unemployment which have always been pillars of their system and which they never worried about before. So, obviously, he scares their rich owners. THEY must think he's real.
    "NO VOLVERAN" means some spray paint editorialists think a revolution has begun and the traditional ruling aristocracy are deposed for good. If they are wrong and the recall succeeds, Venezuelan voters will have failed, I don't care how democratic it looks.
    Hopefully, they're right, but I can't judge that. I know the place as a Latin American place. But as a specific Latin American place, I don't and I'm not on the verge. I'm only guessing the recall will fail. Sweating along Maracaibo's ugly streets for another three weeks won't make me a much better guesser, and I don't consider "observing" the ballot box procedure very important. I'm sure the results are already predestined, and the evidence is already here, if I could see it. I don't think it will be violently disrupted. I'm certainly not sure of that.
    But, while in America elections are ALWAYS scripted, produced, directed, and served on a plate by the media, so all the voters EVER do is fulfill their assigned destiny, Latin Americans are generally more skeptical and more capable of revolting even against the media. The gap between winners and losers is more dramatic and it's more obvious whose side the media are on.
    A sudden addition of millions of new registered voters and a series of promising meetings with other Latin American leaders by Chavez seems to have been followed by a softening of media rhetoric, as if they were seeing the writing on the walls. One local paper ran two stories in one day this week about all the houses and schools and health facilities Chavez has been building, things normally just called "his" projects that he's "wasting" revenues on. Chavez presence in Maracaibo Saturday (an endlessly boring military review) was broadcast live all over the dial.
    On the other hand, I've heard leftist criticism of Chavez for being too ambiguous, maybe hypocritical, maybe ready to compromise to stay in power. A waiter in Macuto told me Chavez rashly encourages the poor to steal from the rich by calling such theft justified. "Are you actually talking about a philosophical analysis or a recommendation?" "Well, to me it sounded like a recommendation. But it doesn't matter. The poor in this country are too uneducated to know the difference, and he can't talk like that and then turn around and flatter the country's business leaders the next day."
    Another waiter 200 yards away told me he lived all his life in a "rancho." Now his family lives in a large, new house in Barquisimeto, where Chavez has built "thousands" of new houses for the poor. "Thousands?"
    He named another city where he said 5,000 houses have been built. A taxi driver in Valencia later told me the same thing. "And can the owners of these new houses go outside at night?"
    He assured me the new barrios were tranquillo because they aren't part of any barrio of ranchos. I translated that to mean the homeowners weren't dangerous anymore because they no longer shared the desperation of their former friends. The waiter was sure such acts would ensure Chavez' victory in the recall. But an angry cab driver who said he'd fought his own way out of the "ranchos" and admired Fidel and the Cuban revolution told me Chavez is selling out to big business now to win in the recall.
    Chavez' speeches I've heard definitely leaned more toward business than social angles. He speaks of workers rather than the poor as an important "sector," equal to property owners. He's openly promised he won't take the country toward communism, intoning the word as if with contempt for such ideas. He salts and peppers his speeches with the words "democracy" and "freedom." I've been told repeatedly he thinks too much like a soldier. I've heard as much skepticism as approval.
    The best thing I've learned is that he is, in fact, building a lot of new houses for the poor, using oil revenues in a meaningful way that ought to win votes. An Indian woman in Merida told me she'd been told the houses don't have pipes to take out the "aguas negras," so they're uninhabitable. But I heard that same ridiculous propaganda about new houses in Cuba. Maybe Miami is sharing its genius with the Venezuelan right.
    The worst thing I've learned is that, unlike Cubans, Venezuelans are largely uneducated and, it seems to me, unsophisticated. And those who are educated, including students, tend to be yuppies. Pervasive TV presence may convince them of anything.
    I think the recall will fail, but, feeling a letdown after the emotional high of Cuba, often stymied by the very different Spanish in Venezuela, drained by the more humid heat, and frustrated by an apparent national tendency toward disorganization and information vacuums, I haven't found it as easy to get inside Venezuela as it has been in Nicaragua, Mexico, and Cuba. Also, I literally dislike Caracas and Maracaibo more than Havana. I liked the ambiance of Macuto and Trujillo more than the people. I've actually made some good friends in Maracaibo, like the tourist office girl who abandoned her desk to personally walk me around the scrap of historical Maracaibo remaining (where there is nothing to eat or drink because nobody dares go there at night), and the bookstore clerk who used his lunch hour to drive me from bus terminal to bus terminal until I found a sure way to escape, and the maid who snuck my dirty clothes into the hotel laundry. But the only place I've felt truly comfortable was Merida, where the people are (I think) uncharacteristically friendly and intelligent and helpful and there's even a lot of good food and of course the mountains are beautiful.
    Passing through a series of high mountain towns like Mexican tile paintings, I may have seriously erred by not shouting "Pare!" and getting off the bus in a couple of them, especially Timotes. But in Maracaibo, where I am last and which I think of as most representative, the heat and long walks are hell, all the drivers on all the streets are inept and dangerous (in 35 days in the country I've eye witnessed three accidents), the only good food is generally Chinese, there's no good beer - period. Most of the people are unfriendly and, though I suspect their supposed dangerousness is based on apocryphal b.s., you really can't trust them to know anything you need to know or tell you the truth. I'm eager to get on to Colombia, and I keep wishing I was in Mexico.
    Venezuela IS cheap, and IŽll try to write again of three places (in only a month) that I found really worth spending a week or more in: Macuto, Trujillo, and Merida.