And there it was: my grandfather’s house, empty and decaying. I had lived there while doing summer jobs. It was here that my grandfather had entertained Gabriel García Márquez and former US Secretary of State James Baker. Sitting outside the rusting gates, I tried to recapture my past for my new husband, and in doing so to explain what has happened to my homeland, Venezuela, in the 10 years under President Hugo Chávez. Today, more people die violently every week in Caracas than in Baghdad.
“You see,” I said, “this is what has happened all over, this decay. Once, it was not like this.” “Yes,” he replied, “I see.” But I wondered if he did, as he craned his neck forward to peer through the windscreen to read the words Perros Furibundos (“rabidly fierce dogs”). He watched me as I pleaded at the gate, pressing the buzzer beneath a smashed lamp, the electronic eye of the surveillance camera too exhausted to register me. No guard opened the security window; no one spoke over the intercom. The only response was the tired bark of a lone dog, more jaded than fierce, and I wondered when was the last time he ate, or even saw a human being.
We had arrived in Caracas to attend an old friend’s wedding, a traditional affair held at the Country Club. “You’ll love it,” I had enthused. “The old Caracas, that not even Chávez can touch.” What I found, though, was very different from what I expected.
Decay was unimaginable when I was a child basking in the tropical sun in my own personal Eden of our Country Club home. The Caribbean’s humidity, only 30 minutes away, was soaked up by the Avila Mountains. My blue-eyed Prague-born father would drive his Mercedes coupé home through the poor Puente de Chapellín neighbourhood. He and the locals would wave at each other, for there was no class hatred then. The rich owned the businesses that provided the jobs, and my family gave back to the country that took them in when they fled communist Czechoslovakia.
Although the poor vastly outnumbered the rich, the entire country felt rich from the oil boom of the 1970s, which made Venezuela the world’s largest non-Arab oil producer. Mocking the poor Americans, who had always treated us as their mascots, was a national sport. Every week, people tuned in to RCTV to watch their favourite skit: two Venezuelans fly American Airlines to Miami to shop for the day with the refrain: “Está barato; dame dos.” (“It’s cheap; gimme two.”). Last year, Chávez closed the station, saying it was pro-opposition.
Landing in Caracas just before last November’s elections for governors, mayors and legislators, I found a city ravaged by ten years of the Chávez regime, pocked with the colourful posters of grinning candidates. Caraqueños – as Caracas inhabitants are called – have been torn apart by a low-level civil war of chavistas (as his supporters are called) versus opposition, with campaign posters standing in for gang colours. A preponderance of red means you’re in a chavista area. Red portraits of Chávez himself painted on the walls means you are not in the Country Club any more, Toto. I drive until the posters turn blue, green or yellow.
Chávez has held a Wizard of Oz sway since he burst on to the political scene as a putschist general with his failed coup in February 1992. His one-minute TV appearance to call back his troops would make him a cult hero and change Latin America forever when he said his quest for social justice was unsuccessful “por ahora” (“for now”). But prevail he did at the next election, riding a wave of anger and riots all the way to the presidential palace.
In his decade as president, Chávez has parlayed socioeconomic resentment into near-invincibility. But the chinks in the armour were there for all to see in December 2007, when he lost a referendum on the constitutional changes that would have extended his dictatorial powers to rule by decree, suspending civil rights and effectively making him president for life. He quickly turned defiant: “For me, this isn’t a defeat. This is por ahora.”
Whether it was or not would be determined on 23 November, and no one was taking any chances. Chávez delivered fiery speeches every day, broadcast live on all six state TV stations before oceans of red. Ignoring his rants, the opposition toiled on. But would they be able to win over the throngs of chavistas?
Chavistas come in four broad categories. First, there are the poor ones. These are the ignorant and desperate hordes, filling the TV screens at every Chávez rally with a sea of red shirts that the rally organisers bribe them to wear with a combination of money and alcohol. They earn more by attending a rally than they would with an honest day’s work, if they could get it. Regardless of their poverty, they continue to revere Chávez like a personal god or conquering hero, for he looks and sounds like them as he rants against the wealthy.
Then there are the government chavistas – Chávez’s cronies. These soi-disant representatives and enforcers of popular power are making millions, even as they rail against the wealthy oligarchy against whom they say they must protect the Venezuelans. Chávez’s former Vice-President, José Vicente Rangel, denounces those who live in the prosperous area of Altamira – but he lives in Altamira himself, surrounded by 20 bodyguards. Not for them the state schools, in which they profess so much faith. Their children attend the most prestigious private academies in Caracas, including the German, American and British schools.
A lot of money is also flowing to the opportunistic chavistas. Although not directly in government, these are the contractors, bankers and distributors who profit from the regime. They overcharge the government, or the end client, or both, pocket the difference and give a kickback to the minister in charge. Everyone is happy as the public coffers are emptied into their personal bank accounts and the sale of cars and luxury goods breaks all records. No better than British chavs, they’ll buy anything as long as the logo is big enough.
But it is behind the crumbling walls of the Country Club mansions that the most pathetic chavistas are bred – the secret ones. They can no longer afford to keep up appearances since Chávez is nationalising estates of 100,000 acres or more. The Country Club used to name and shame those members remiss in their subscriptions on a wall. Now, the list is so embarrassingly long that the club has stopped. In order to restore their fortunes, some covert chavistas have grovelled to the government. At the same time they masquerade as principled members of the upper class and mock the heathen and gauche chavistas while playing golf or sipping a whiskicito at a drinks party. Yet they fret that the secret source of their restored glory will be discovered and they will be reviled by their old-money friends in the opposition.
After all, conspicuous consumption is no longer an option for non-chavistas, for among them Orwellian paranoia has set in. That
includes the Country Club set, which has retreated into a fortress mentality. The built-up walls surrounding their mansions now have electric wires above the spikes and are surveyed by video cameras and armed guards in fortified cubicles with bulletproof glass. But the guards themselves are often suspected as part of the problem, as probable chavistas. So arming your security guards, as my brother has done at his dairy farm, is no guarantee. He has stayed away in recent months for fear that he may land at the airstrip one day and find his weapons used against him. This fear and class hatred is part of Chávez’s design. At the end of his TV speeches, there is a graphic incitement to violence – footage of the poor setting cars on fire, looting and throwing Molotov cocktails. It’s no wonder the prices of apartments have skyrocketed while those of houses have remained flat.
Fortunately, Venezuelans are quite adaptable, and have even taken in their stride the sharp increase in kidnappings, currently quadruple those in Medellín, Colombia. Kidnappings here fall into two categories. There are the high-ransom, well-organised ones, plotted with the aid of Facebook pages, which reveal where the wealthy go, with whom and in what car.
Then there’s the quick, opportunistic ones for small amounts of money, known as “kidnap express,” which recently happened to a friend of mine. As she left her Las Mercedes (think Mayfair) hairdresser and put her key in the door of her Mercedes, a Jeep full of young thugs pulled up behind her and they drew their guns. “Get in,” they said. “And phone your husband and tell him you won’t be coming home unless he gets us $50,000 tonight.” She phoned him, he paid, and then she found a hairdresser with valet parking.
Besides the endemic fear of violence, there are the food shortages. For months, Chávez’s price controls meant that food staples such as beans, corn flour, milk and eggs could rarely be found. When they were, three-hour Soviet-style queues ensued. When Chávez handed out packets of powdered milk to compensate, the bellies of recipients were painted Chávez red, though branding them like cattle might have been more effective.
While Venezuelans go hungry, Chávez sees himself as a global player, spreading his influence throughout the region, funding and aiding Raul Castro in Cuba, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Cristina de Kirchner in Argentina and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil. The last three, despite their lip-service to Chávez, have pursued moderate, practical policies. Chávez’s coziness with Farc terrorists in Colombia has also irked many Venezuelans, particularly those who live along the porous border, which the Farc routinely cross to hide and to kidnap Venezuelans. “No more FARC” read giant banners at a Caracas demonstration in early 2008.
Now the Russians have arrived, with their oil deals and warships, following China to make new friends in Latin America. Venezuelans are unimpressed. They have, they say, already helped Russia enough by buying $5.4 billion of their weapons. Venezuela does not want to be like Cuba. That’s Chávez’s ambition, not the people’s. Now it might not happen.
As the election results were announced, fireworks exploded over the city. The opposition won in most of the Caracas slums ( previously chavista bastions) and the five most important and populous states – this despite Chávez’s pre-election threats to imprison opposition candidates and militarily occupy those areas that voted for them. Now Chávez is sounding more conciliatory and speaking of respecting the will of the people. But he is still very much in power. Chavistas still control the Supreme Court, the National Assembly, the federal bureaucracy and every state company. In Barinas, Chávez’s home state, his older brother Adán narrowly won the governorship, replacing their father and continuing a political dynasty that has long been plagued by accusations of corruption and abuse of power.
The political map is more mottled. Although chavista red still dominates, the more modern parts of the country have clearly voted for change. And this could be Chávez’s unintentional political legacy – greater political participation and inclusion for all. “Venezuelans never used to care about politics,” said my sister-in-law. “Since Chávez, it’s all they talk about.”
Never again will the wealthy be vilified in such simplistic terms; putschists, strikes and class violence have also lost their lustre. Venezuelans want to work together and live peacefully in a just socioeconomic and political system. And that, more than anything else, will spell the end of Chávez and his protégés and the start of a true participatory democracy.