Saturday, January 31, 2015

Eleven Days in Venezuela: January 2015

With the change in US-Cuban relations, it seemed a good time to visit the other  nearby socialist country, Venezuela and see how they were faring.  I went as a delegate for Global Exchange, which through Reality Tours, works to develop a better understanding of various world communities.   It was my fifth trip with them - I like their investigative approach.  Some sight seeing but mostly chances to talk with locals, in and out of government,  about what is and what is not working for them.  And in Venezuela, it seemed a lot was not working.

We were a group of  five at most.  Three of us in Caracas, including a very able guide-translator with two more inland: another guide and a driver.  I was the only non-Spanish speaker for the other delegate was a Brazilian, who was conversant in English and Spanish along with his Portuguese. A good travel companion.
We were in Caracas for several days, then nearly a day's bus ride for an overnight  at  Barquisimeto before moving further inland onto Sanare in the Andean foothills.  Four nights there, and then,  the whole process repeated with the trip concluding in Caracas. 

Caracas, reportedly a city of violence.  I experienced none but I was safely ticked away in a security barred hotel after dark.  And this hotel was only one of many barred,  gated, fenced, secured buildings, not only in Caracas but in  other places visited.  Part of it may be a Spanish tradition of enclosed buildings but mostly it seemed to be  security.  Iron barred fences offer little aesthetically.  My immediate reaction was:  South Africa, where there were similar safety measures taken. 

Caracas was crowded and colorful.  the sightseeing  ranged  from cathedrals  to the Presidential palace to Altamira Square to Simon Boliver's home.  Bolivar is the historical hero, even though the Venezuelans kicked him out when he proved too autocratic for them.  There were several cops gathered, as cops do, at the square - being friendly.  One happily practiced his English with me. And women were incorporated into the police services, both local and federal.

We rode about on the Metro, designed by the same French company as did the Bay area's BART system - the main difference was the Caracas system had the rainbow stripe on the cars. It worked well, as opposed to an overcrowded city bus system.  Up and over the barrios is a Metro Cable, used by hillside residents who had had no transportation options.

And I felt there were three distinct segments to Caracas:  in the south, the poor in the barrio; up north, the rich secured in their haciendas, and the rest of us that conducted business in mid town.  I didn't see a lot of begging though there was a man in a wheelchair, in the midst of traffic holding a sign - he was upset when I took a photo and I have no way to let him know, the photo didn't turn out.  But in the City, as well as the country, there was a lot of hanging out by guys of varying ages.  And I was told alcohol abuse was a big problem.

Venezuelans seem not to like a blank wall:  there have be signs, painting, announcements or graffiti - and often all four combined.  Our guide was explaining some of the more important events and persons in the country's history, using paintings on a wall - with graffiti superimposed.  Also, in front of a more pristine area was a street preacher with his audience of twenty-odd.

We did get to the University, full of energetic and talkative students, mostly young but a few of middle years.  Books stalls were on the campus, given space on the basis they would discount books for college clientele.  My companion-in-travel took advantage of the opportunity to pick up some reading material. 

Met with several students at the cafe:  young and enthusiastic.  Considered part of the opposition as they did not support the current president.  Seemingly. they supported the new Constitution that came into effect with Chavez, the charismatic  leader who upended the Old Regime in 1998, but were not happy with Chavez' anointed successor, Maduro.  A foot soldier  (vice president) in Chavez' administration, he didn't have the cajones to effectively lead after Chavez' death.  The students believed he had become too enamored with power and needed to be replaced.  (The problem is, per our guide, there are no serious choices.)

One of the first things I saw was a long line, around the block, to a small so-called Super Market.  Reportedly, the store had milk.  This was the first of my experiences with the shortages in goods.  Cooking oil, toilet paper, toothpaste and soap were among the basics hard to come by.  And this was wide spread:  our guide  collected stuff throughout the trip, to bring home for his mom's use.  As he said:  distribution sucks!  Apparently, a combination of both stupidity and corruption contribute to the shortages. 

Water was another scarce item.  Our hotel turned off the water from 8 PM to 6:30 AM.  There was no water for the sinks in public toilets, you flushed "only when you must" and best have your own toilet paper for none was provided - unless an enterprising woman had some she sold as you entered the facilities.  And this was not just in the city!

Also and not just in the City:  little evidence of smoking.  Many no smoking signs.  And no smokers out and about,

Moving on, in a two decker bus with impaired air conditioning, out of the City and with escorts outnumbering delegates, we got a look at the countryside and meet with the people who were working within and outside
the system to provide goods and services for the citizens.   Chavez had set the path for Improvement of the poor's  lot for they overwhelm, if not inherit, the country.

In Barquisimeto, we met with representatives  of  a youth group and a council  leader and their efforts effect change. On our last night returning to Caracas, the youth group did a music and dance presentation - led by our local guide, a sometime drummer and guitarist.  

Most interesting to me, was a chat with a local police officer.  Jail/prisons are overcrowded and the criminal justice system is overwhelmed.  As a result, there are people detained at police stations, not for the normal three days but up to  a year and beyond.  The local guide talked of a relative who was detained for several years before trial, then sentenced to eight months which he served in addition.  The officer also talked about the lack of respect police get from the community; our guide talked about the pay offs to police to have arrest erased. 

Sanare has a history of collectives, cooperative and communal efforts, some predating Chavez.  He certainly wasn't forgotten with picture and portraits ever present.  Though in a folk art market, we had trouble finding  his facsimile and were told it is no longer a hot item.  I saw nothing of Maduro.

I was impressed with the efforts to make eduction available outside the public school systems.  Several groups provide classes to those who missed out, including college and/or  technical work; one, Mision Robinson is mentioned in Wildipedia.  Family medical care was headed by the mayor's son, an attractive and committed individual; despite being a Catholic country, family planning services were provided. 

We did get to a community based radio station and talked with two of the collective operating it.  One was a dual citizen American-Venzuelan, who felt he had to come and participate in the Revolution:  I either read about it or I'm here! 

What else?  A fertilizer and farm cooperative where our guides and driver proved their worth by shoveling away.  Also I ended up with some  great Yogurt.  And there was the representative of the coffee cooperative, one of many throughout the country.   Plus a pasta making collective. A Women's cooperative that wasn't doing much business as they  didn't  have the produce to preserve.  But all people of good will and ambition, taking the time to explain to two foreigners their hopes for themselves and their Community.

One man I remember particularly:  he talked of working with areas that had mutual interests for their betterment, apart from the governmental boundaries.  Eventually, he hoped the natural boundaries would replace the artifical ones of the state.  Couldn't help but think of the Western powers and how they divided up the Middle East after WW1 and look what's happened!

We spent time with an ex-pat who had been in Sanare for twenty years and in the area much longer.  She was a committed Chavez supporter but critical of Maduro.  Her take:  Chavez tried to be the good father who gave everything to his people but forgot they needed to work for/earn some things. They are paying the price, particularly with the oil revenues tanking.  However, she still sees herself as a Chavez supporter, even given Maduro's limitations. .

Accommodations:  Caracas:  A basic C- hotel, but with wi-fi.  In fact, wi-fi abounds and with outlets at pit stops for the cell phones/ipads. Well located near bus station and computer center.  Had but had to ask for toilet paper.  Barquisimeto: Best  hotel of the lot.  A small hotel with computer and electronic oven for residents.  No soap but can't have everything.  Sanare: Out of town in the hills; a retreat for families.  Large rooms and meals prepared there.  Computer center nearby but out of service one day and occupied by kids the others.  Had to fight my way through.

Meals:  We were well fed.  My only problem was I couldn't eat as much as was served and I'm not a beans and rice for breakfast person.  Fortunately, I found yogurt and had some energy bars with me.  Lots of chicken.  Little ice cream though I did get a couple of cones in Sanare.

Cost:  Total:  under $6000 including cat care.  Tour was $1900 (which included two meals a day) and air fare was $1366.

Overall:  there's a lot of good energy around that the government could make work more efficiently.  But I could say that about the US. 

Leaving was interesting:  waiting in the airport, the television had a promo on about visiting Venezuela.  Beautiful sunsets, water skiing, sexy women, buffed men  - where was I?

Jo Rawlins Gilbert
Palo Alto CA  94303

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