Posted by: elsalamigrande | February 16, 2010

Ubiquity of the Status Quo: Why Hugo Reigns King.

PORLAMAR- Take it for what it’s worth, coming from a baseball fan with limited Spanish who has been here for all of two weeks, but it seems to me like Hugo Chavez is going to be the man around here for some time to come; mostly because he’s doing everything right. That’s not to say that Venezuela is a rising power, and that its citizens are enjoying prosperity across the board, or even the Venezuelan people are better off than most. In truth, I don’t know and wouldn’t feel right making broad generalizations about this place’s outlook on the strength of what I’ve seen. But I’ve seen enough to say that it’ll take a seismic shift to unseat the entrenched power base. Hugo Chavez is giving the people what they want.

There is definitely enough poverty to go around, even in the relatively rich Isla De Margarita, a tourist center with the resources and infrastructure to host the welterweight class international event that is the Serie del Caribe. The sanitation, for example, isn’t at the level that any first world country would consider tolerable. Garbage and canine waste are common roadside decorations, and often occupy the empty lots that one finds on almost all city blocks in Porlamar. I did see a garbage truck making the rounds in Playa el Agua, but the familiar scattered refuse and dog shit still dotted the street sides and vacant lots. The beaches, and any other place that people congregated to spend money, however, were spotless. I’m unaware of a conventional, working postal system.

It’s tempting to think that these are things that we take for granted in the western world, and their absence is taken for granted in Venezuela. The streets have likely been covered in garbage for as long as anyone can remember. It’s nothing to get in a twist about. Unemployment may be high, but it must be lower because of the government sponsored stimulus plan that one sees advertised frequently on billboards, and on television.

Venezuelans aren’t much different from everyone else; certain key elements must be in place to keep them happy and so long as they don’t go away, change, or go up in cost, nobody’s going to cause any meaningful swell in unrest.  The first of those things is television.

Every TV I turned on in Venezuela, no matter the quality of the hotel I stayed in, had somewhere around 90 channels. There were sports channels, movie channels showing both Latin and subtitled or dubbed American movies. They have even been infected by the oxymoronic plague known as “reality television”. If Hugo Chavez had something to say – and it seems that he frequently did – it was carried on 15 of the 90 channels. I assume that these are the channels of Venezuelan origin. As I mentioned, several of them were shut down right before our arrival two weeks ago for not carrying the president’s speeches.

Most of Hugo’s speeches come off pretty drab and boring, especially to those of us with Spanish as a second language. But they’re not all created equal. I watched a solid 20 minutes, over bored sighs of protest from my girlfriend, of Chavez doing a pretty convincing Oprah Winfrey impression. He was in an outdoor setting, sporting a Venezuelan flag jumpsuit, surrounded by what looked like about 1000 of his closest friends. The set was one of open rigging and sound and video techs running about – the type of TV one expects from a summer music festival. Hugo spoke pensively and proudly about the country, its tremendous advance since he began making everything wonderful, and how that is likely to continue for some time. He took questions from the audience, usually a smitten middle aged woman who didn’t ask much, but heaped praise about the country, and its tremendous advance since Hugo began making everything wonderful and, would it continue? Oh, yes it most certainly would. And I think we have time for one more question.

These nationally licensed channels also carried their own unique version of the Venezuelan national anthem, nightly, at 11pm.  The whole thing struck me as transparent and tacky flag waving, and I’m sure that most Venezuelans feel the same way about it if they feel anything about it at all. But what, exactly, is there to complain about? There’s a game on every night, and if you don’t want to watch that, there’s a movie or some other kind of distraction. Let ‘em speechify if it keeps the goods coming.

In every country to which I have had the fortune of visiting, people’s complaints have commonly been about one thing: the price of fuel. It hovers around about $1.20/ liter in my home town of Vancouver. Every time it goes up, people come as close as they ever will to rioting. There are reliably fire breathing newspaper columnists convinced of a vast conspiracy between the oil companies and the government. Those who can afford the time or are going anyways cross the border to buy it for $3/US gallon in Washington State. I hear that it’s over $2/liter in Europe. Universally, nobody likes it. I always thought that it was amusing that the bitching and moaning never really stops, but we aren’t yet at the point that people have stopped driving. But I digress.

In Venezuela, gas costs $0.015/liter at the pump. That’s one and one half cents per liter. I suspect that the government subsidizes its cost from the oceans of revenue that comes from being one of the world’s leading exporters of crude oil. In any case, cheap gas keeps people happy. The car of choice in Porlamar is a Chevrolet Malibu of late eighties vintage. There are also plenty of old Dodge Darts and Chrysler New Yorkers among a crush of more modern and fuel efficient Toyotas and Renaults. Very few of the old muscle cars are in any kind of respectable condition, but they all have aluminum racing rims and dual exhausts. One mint ’67 Ford Mustang fastback in Playa el Agua stuck out. When the rental car company stuck me with an unobtrusive, modern 4 cylynder Renault compact, I felt cheated. Everyone has a car. They are affordable. Hell, at 1.5¢/l, you can’t afford not to!

The streets of Caracas buzz with activity in the daytime. People hang out on the corners and talk. They watch the ballgame, they play ball. Most people can afford a tank of gas and a cold beer and a chicken dinner while they watch the game as day turns into night. On Sunday, they were preparing for Carnival – two weeks of costumes, parades and cheap beer. Chavez might as well have always been in power, that’s why a tank of gas is affordable and the beer is cold and the sky is blue, to hear him tell it.

We experienced one power outage while on Isla De Margarita. The series was over, and we were waiting for a hamburger in a diner in the town of Juan Gregor when the lights went out. Candles were distributed in less than 5 minutes, and business went on as usual. My chicken burger arrived hot and tasty. After about 15 minutes of darkness, it all came back together to the cheers of the young patrons of the restaurant. One of them praised Hugo Chavez and was met with a few groans. I regretted having blown out our candle about three minutes later when the power went back off and, without missing a beat, someone shouted over to the supporter’s table, “Hey, get Chavez on it!” and laughter filled the darkness.

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Responses

  1. Great commentating Braden. I feel like I’ve been part of the action – although the beer and sanitation gives me shudders. I hope Narissa is a baseball fan too.
    We’ll miss you in Panama – too bad. I hope you get some beach time and better beer. You’ve missed a huge party in Vancouver. Crazy! But when all settles down – we’ll remember it like nothing else before. Expo 86 did not have the hype of sports fans and competitive events. People are having a great time with the warm and sunny days we are getting – awesome!
    We’ll see you back in Canada.
    Take care and have a good trip back.


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