Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Chat with a Caracas Taxi Driver: The Venezuela of Hugo Chávez that You Won't Read about in the New York Times

His name is Giovanni* and soon after we leave the airport we find ourselves imbedded in a barely-moving mass of cars, mopeds, and trucks, a traffic jam he had resignedly prophesied before our progress was so heavily forestalled along the main road between the Venezuelan coast and the urban-sprawl of Caracas. Giovanni owns two cars and is the boss and only employee of a transport service he began years ago. He is part of a small, slowly growing middle class in a country where according to him 80% of the people live in stark poverty, governed by a very wealthy elitist minority. Such a scenario is far from uncommon in South America, a continent where for many corruption is the norm and simply a way of life, a seemingly monolithic obstacle contributing in large part to the persistence of the gap between the very rich and the very poor (and the associated near-absence of a middle class).

The burgeoning Venezuelan middle class, Giovanni suggests, is confused, afraid, and somewhat unsure of their identity, capitalizing in part on the wealth of the now-nationalized petroleum industry, but feeling the effects of Chávez 's ever more openly socialist and dictatorial regime. Moving against privatization of all forms, Chávez has according to Giovanni begun reclaiming some peoples' land and homes, and Giovanni says he and other entrepreneurs like him are worried the government will soon come to claim their cars and houses as well. Chávez - apparently paranoid of being killed by the US government and a CIA coup to the point of refusing to live in the presidential palace like each of his predecessors, or even to tell the public where his residence actually is - hasn't yet begun any major acts of violence to maintain his power. Giovanni is sure, however, that it won't be long until people who speak and act against the regime start disappearing. Peaceful demonstrators and casually outspoken citizens have begun to suffer jail time in some instances, and the media is starting to fall completely under government control. Already there are times, Giovanni explains, when all radio and TV stations broadcast only the voice of Chávez for hours on end. In these broadcasts, the president speaks nationalistically about public works projects and community development tasks that Giovanni claims aren't actually being conducted but are instead one aspect of a broader project of propaganda used to create an illusion - nationally and internationally - of the Chávez regime as one concerned with and actively engaged in improving the welfare of the Venezuelan people.

Giovanni points to the garbage-strewn barrios with their ramshackle houses spewing over the hills surrounding Caracas and explains that the people struggling to survive here have no quality water or sewage system, and that gang violence over drugs, for example, results in countless deaths on a weekly basis; the money that Chávez claims is being directed to stem this suffering is in fact only being used to line the pockets of his friends and purchase Mercedes and BMWs for his political allies. Giovanni laughs somewhat bitterly and recalls a point when he talked on the phone with his sister, who has lived in France now for sometime. His sister spoke highly of Chávez , claiming that people in France were impressed with how much he was accomplishing in Venezuela. She initially refused to even believe her indignant brother when he protested that the apparent self-proclaimed successes of the Venezuelan president were no more than a well-crafted and well-presented mirage.

Now, Giovanni continues, with complete control of the military and the congress, Chávez can start being more bold and public in his moves to establish his vision of socialist Venezuela. Giovanni believes that Chávez will mirror the future Venezuela after the Cuba of Castro's golden days; apparently Chávez has already regaled Cuba with free petroleum (a gallon only costs 10 cents here) on several occasions in an effort to develop and maintain good relations with the Castro regime. Most recently in Chávez 's alarming and ever-more extreme leftist but internationally obscured decisions has been in relation to the food sector: Giovanni says exasperatedly that with no sense of the economy or the logistical effects of his actions, Chávez has begun taking over the meat and dairy industry. Within the last year, certain distributors and sellers of chicken and eggs, for example, have been shut down by the regime so the products can be sold in other venues, sometimes even abroad, leaving the Venezuelans at times with a complete a lack of food or with produce so expensive that it is completely unaffordable. Just yesterday, Giovanni grumbles, his wife went to buy chicken but found that all the local grocers had been unable to secure any poultry or eggs from the distributors, whose operations had had all their produce recently seized by Chávez.

As we near the address of my lodging in Caracas, Giovanni says that to understand how Chávez achieved his position of power, and why nobody will currently do anything concrete to prevent the despot from pursuing his agenda, I must understand the history of the president's predecessors. During the reign of the Venezuelan dictators Gómez [Juan Vincente Gómez**, 1908-14, 1922-29, 1931-35] and Jiménez [Marcos Pérez Jiménez, 1952-1958], Giovanni says, major, highly visible developments were achieved in the Caracas area and elsewhere. He takes one hand off the wheel to motion to the overpass arching above his taxi and the modern highway under the tires and explains that these are the same roads that were constructed under the direction of the regimes of those previous dictators. Their actions and devotion, in small part at least, to Venezuela and its people (in addition to the fatness of their own pockets) left the Venezuelans in a position of knowing a feeling of hope for their country and partial faith in its rulers, making it easy now for Chávez to convince the people that his views are in their best interest. Even if Chávez starts taking a more violent and militant stance to maintain his position of power and affluence, the precedent set by those previous despots might suggest to those yearning for a feeling of peace and prosperity here that Chávez will still bring to the country more money and perceived progress than it possess now, a big enough dangling carrot to keep the mule of the Venezuelan people struggling along even under back-breaking conditions.

Giovanni pulls up to the apartment building of the friends I'll be staying with in Caracas, hopping out to unload my pack with a sense of relaxed professional confidence; I can tell he likes being a chauffeur and being his own boss, but more than that he likes that he got to where he is on nothing but hard work, his own hands, and long hours. Without another word, he jumps back in his cab and drives off, as if our intense conservation over the course of the hour and a half start-and-go ride from the airport to the city was as ordinary as the run-of-the-mill "how about the weather" chit-chat. Maybe the Venezuelans are getting that kind of talk out of their system while they still can, before they start worrying about the fists pounding on their doors late at night, or the unmarked government vehicles screeching to a halt along the curbs outside their houses when they step out to leave for work in the early hours of the morning.

In the subsequent days after my conversation with Giovanni, with a certain curiosity about the accuracy of his words swirling around my mind, I began working for my project in the international American school in Venezuela where my friends have been teachers for several years. When those friends told me they had decided this would be their last year teaching in Venezuela because they were worried about the Chávez regime, I began to realize that Giovanni's complaints were not restricted to one person and bore more accuracy than my scientifically-trained, persistently-doubting mind had allowed. I've now had a chance to speak earnestly with other teachers at the same international school, and one after another each has told me they had come to the same decision as my friends: this will be their last year teaching in Venezuela. Sitting here now in the sun in the courtyard of the school, adding the final touches to this essay, this institution feels like a bastion of sanity and intellect that Chávez's paranoid socialist agenda will never be able to touch. But the teacher's are afraid and growing more unsure of their safety all the time. When they leave and go back to the US, where many of them come from, or to other international schools in South America, what will become of this school and its students? Some of the students here are part of the vast majority of the people in this country: Venezuelan by birth with no where else to go, with insufficient means to leave and no where to run when these pristine white walls finally come tumbling down.

*His name isn't actually Giovanni. I decided to use a different name because I don't think he'd want me to use his real name.

**According to Wikipedia, Gómez was granted by the Venezuelan Congress the title of El Benemérito (the Meritorious One) for his large-scale public works program and his role in Venezuela's development. Certainly the discovery of petroleum in Venezuela in 1918 provided Gómez with an enormous amount of monetary resources for the pursuit of development projects and, of course, for the benefit of his own fortune. Despite his contributions to the Venezuelan infrastructure, Gómez did use brutal tactics to maintain his position of power, "ruthlessly crushing his opponents through his secret police in a way that earned him the reputation of a tyrant".


John A. Atchley III said...

The specter of socialism in Eastern Europe and Western Asia and its implication in a polarized, global political culture make your insight into the Chavez regime all the more frightening.

This news, recounted here and in conversation with you yesterday, arises simultaneously with increased fervor surrounding Iran. I've been reading an interesting set of article about Iran relative to US foreign policy, all of which emphasize the mistaken belief in the current US Administration that radicalism in the Middle East is primarily a result of religious or sectarian violence. The journalists and essayists concur with the Administration, but with the added caveat that this religious and ethnic strife is very much embedded in a complex matrix in which nationalism and politics off sovereignty are playing increasing roles.

When Iran's President visited Chavez recently, they spoke of each other as "brothers" engaged in the same revolutionary struggle. While the dangers of Iran are well known, I worry that much of the progressive West has yet to wake up to the increasingly troubling politics of Chavez, still beguiled by his the vague pomp of his anti-American stance.

Both of these countries, or their current leadership, represent real threats to peaceful, democration nations, and while I am opposed to existing US policy in South America and the Middle East and am growing very nervous about hinted future plans in Iran, these are regimes that must be contended with and rigorously opposed.

My caveat of course is that the anxiety of democracies cannot be relieved via anti-democratic means. The beauty of democratic diplomacy is that it effaces boundaries, defies the sort of binary politicking that defined our last era of Cold-War confrontation.

The ease with which the world can be violently and horribly halved should be a lesson as we move forwards with our foreign policy: the establishment of strict oppiositionality on the world stage is a stance that has grave consequences for us and the rest of the world.

What the solution is, I am not sure, but certainly dialogue has not been exhausted in the case of Iran and this is even more the case in Venezuela which remains, I believe, largely off the political map in this country. In other words, better get started before its too late.

Dusty Foot Philosopher said...

I think the ties BJ draws between Iran and Venezuela are interesting and warrant further examination. While dialogue will certainly be part of any solution (hopefully not military) in either Iran or Venezuela, I don't know how much of a valid option this really is with the latter of those two nations. The February 2, 2007, issue of the magazine 'The Week' has a blurb on Caracas:

"If the U.S. doesn't like the way Venezuela is governed, President Hugo Chavez said last week, it can 'go to hell'. Chavez's outburst was prompted after a U.S. State Department spokesman criticized the Venezuelan legislature's decision to authorize Chavez to rule by decree for 18 months, giving him almost limitless authority. The American official called the move 'a bit odd in terms of a democratic system'. Chavez responded in a radio addres. 'That is a sacrosanct legal authority of Venezuela,' he declared. 'Go to hell, gringos! Go home, go home!' Chavez also taunted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who once called him a 'negative force' in Latin America. 'Hi, Condoleezza,' he said. 'You've forgotten about me, my little girl!'"

It seems the allegations of Chavez being completely insane in addition to heavily socialist might not be too far off the mark. Beginning any sort of democratic dialogue with a man like him will be a challenge at best.

John A. Atchley III said...

Yeah, that bit from "The Week" sort of gets to the crux of things. Not only has US unilateralism polarized global politics, it has also created a system in which nations like Venezuela and Iran stand to benefit from the edification and magnification of this polarization.

In this sense, it may be out of US hands to some degree, (without radical foreign policy realignments), in that we've empowered the nations we wished to remove from power and once that threshhold has been crossed, its not easy (or possible) to go back.

Dusty Foot Philosopher said...

It seems to me that the situation in Iran, when compared to that in Venezuela, actually poses fewer difficulties in terms of initializing new dialogue and bringing about less volatile relations with the US and the world. Surprisingly, the moderate voice in Iran seems to have enough freedom and power to influence the affluent clerics and subsequently the president himself. Here's a couple more blurbs from the week:

The Week
Feb 2, 2007:

Rebuking Ahmadinejad:
Iran's ayatollahs, conservative and moderate alike, are expressing displeasure with the bellicose behavior of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two hard-line newspapers close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, admonished Ahmadinejad to use more "caution and diplomacy" in pursuing Iran's right to develop nuclear power. The country's most senior moderate cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, said Ahmadinejad was being needlessly provocative. The ayatollahs reportedly fear that the U.S. may be ready to attempt "regime change" as a way of blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The Week
February 16, 2007:
Iran advances its nuclear program:

International inspectors this week confirmed that Iran has begun installing 3,000 uranium-gas centrifuges, bringing the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran closer than ever. Iran continues to insist its goal is peaceful nuclear power, not nuclear weapons, as the U.S. charges....
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shrugged off the impending deadline. "We are rapidly becoming a superpower," he said. "The language of sanctions belongs to the past."

Inside Iran, though, there is growing pressure on Ahmadinejad to moderate his stance on the nuclear issue, to avoid a military showdown with the U.S. or Israel. In a rare move, Iran invited Western reporters and diplomats to tour one of its nuclear facilities, a tactic the U.S. dismissed as a political stunt. "Suspending [nuclear activities] would build confidence," said Gregory Schulte, U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. "Showcasing them does not."...

Recent U.S. statements reveal "a tone of restraint" - an indication, perhaps, that the U.S. believes economic sanctions are moving the Iranians toward a more reasonable position.

Which is why we need more of them, said Kim Holmes in The Washington Times. With tougher sanctions and greater international pressure, the West can "drive wedges further between Ahmadinejad's regime and the restive Iranian people."

It terms of Iran at least, I feel the strategy of the US must involve appealing to that moderate voice and perhaps even giving them a greater platform in the national and international media. Let the Iranian people themselves and not the foreign news agents paint the Iranian ruler as a power hungry war-monger.