Caracas 101: An Intro to Venezuelan Politics

Travel writer, Marilyn Abildskov, once said, “I think of places as some of the most intense romances of our lives.” I’ve always been fascinated with that idea—with the characterization of places, or of cities, more specifically—with the mere thought that they can envelop you and romance you, that they have layers and personalities, like living, breathing organisms. Cities are sprung from the hands of human beings, after all, and just as our own offspring are born of free will, so too are the cities we create. They begin with a vision that is shaped by a few key individuals, such as investors, urban developers, and landscape architects; but over decades and centuries, they become the handiwork of millions, from graffiti artists and small business owners, to restaurateurs, street performers, homeless people, and housewives. With all of these personalities constantly carving their own vision, it’s no wonder that cities might long to free themselves from the schizophrenic demands of their makers and simply decide on their own what they ultimately want to become.

I like to think of Barcelona as my unrequited love. And Caracas? Well, let’s just say Caracas was like a stranger I eloped with in the middle of a drunken haze. Sure, moving there had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the morning after I arrived, I immediately woke up feeling that sharp pang of regret and uneasiness. Please don’t get me wrong. I do not mean any offense to Venezuela, as a country, or certainly to any of the Venezuelan citizens who are a beautiful and welcoming group of people. But I had flown there in a frenzy without fully considering why I was going or what I really wanted to accomplish.

Unlike me, most of my colleagues at Optimal English—the company that hired me to teach business English—had a pretty strong sense of what had brought them to Caracas. Trevor was looking for adventure and Venezuelan women. He had no desire to teach in Europe because it was boring and blasé, “far too similar to American culture,” he said.

Matt wanted to get his PhD in Political Science and was hoping to write a thesis on the social and political climate of Venezuela. The gap between the rich and the poor had been growing for quite some time, both economically and ideologically. The rich despised their president, while the poor thought he was the messiah. All of this fascinated Matt and he embraced every moment as an opportunity to gather research for his future doctoral dissertation.

Marissa came to Caracas because she had done everything right, as it seemed; yet, she was still unhappy. Bored with her full-time job at an import/export company, she decided she wasn’t nearly as ready to settle down as she had thought. She started to envision the next forty years of her life in a steady and predictable stream, and it made her panic. Was this really what she wanted? Was this it? So, she quit and took a job teaching English in Venezuela. Marissa adored Caracas right from the start.

Nicole came for love. During her graduate program at the University of Chicago, she had met Luis Araque Jr., son of one of the partners at Araque Reyna, a large and successful law firm in Caracas (also, one of our major clients at Optimal English). Luis had received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in America, and he and Nicole fell in love. Once the study grant ended, he was forced to go back to Caracas, and Nicole decided to go with him. She took a job at Optimal English that was part teaching, part administrative work, and she absolutely hated the city. “I would leave in a second,” she told me, “if it wasn’t for Luis.”

Cara grew up on the East Coast and had all of the privileges anyone could ever ask for in life, yet was still one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met. She was educated first at a Montessori school, then at a top, New England boarding school, and then a private university where her tuition was fully paid through a lacrosse scholarship. She has had lunch with Bobby Kennedy Jr., and even from Caracas, was working on a proposal to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Cara came to Venezuela because she had a friend who had worked for Optimal English and had told her all about it. She knew exactly what to expect when she got there, and also knew that the whole experience would be great for her resume.

These are the people that carried me through the time I spent in Caracas. They made me laugh and accompanied me on random adventures that ranged from dancing till the wee hours of the morning and exchanging money illegally on the black market (hey, you get a better rate that way, and besides, everybody does it). We drank coconut milk straight out of a coconut, and endured long bus rides that zigzagged through the sides of mountains and made us all wonder if we would ever survive. In addition, my co-workers were important to me because their passion, reason and purpose for being there helped to level my emotions whenever the natural frustrations of being in a foreign country started to come up. In Caracas, we quickly learned, there was a bit more than the usual language barriers and cultural customs for us to navigate. There were also many safety issues that affected our everyday lives, and I know I certainly hadn’t accounted for those. We were advised not to take pictures in public places because our cameras could get stolen. Women were told not to walk alone in certain areas. Jewelry was better left at home, depending upon where we were going.

But, I believe I am getting ahead of myself. In order for you to have a full understanding of what life was like in Venezuela, I will need to give you a little bit of background on the political situation, both in the country itself, and in it’s relations with the United States.

In Venezuela, there is a massive gap between the rich and the poor, and it has slowly been developing over the last sixty years. In 1958, Venezuela opened up their borders, and because of all the prosperity and oil wealth they had at the time, immigrants began to flock to the capitol city of Caracas in droves. They came from Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, and squatted on the hillsides. They built shantytowns, otherwise known in Venezuela as barrios. By 2007, out of the 6 million people living in Caracas, 4 million lived in the hillside barrios, which meant that they lived in absolute poverty.

The founders of the Caracas Urban Think Tank, Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, had an office down the hall from Optimal English, so we got to talk to them about their many projects and visions for the city. They referred to the barrios as “informal cities”—informal because they don’t have things like running water or roads. The other one third of the population lives at varying degrees above the poverty line in apartments, houses, or even mansions.

In spite of the growing economic gap, the country possesses an extremely valuable form of revenue to export, and that revenue is oil. Venezuela is the world’s third largest supplier of oil, and when Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998, he made a vow to start redistributing the wealth it generates. He dubbed this the Bolivarian Revolution in honor of Simon Bolivar—the man who liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule in the 19th Century. Bolivar is incredibly important to the Venezuelan people, and even their currency is named after him.

Chavez’s argued that much of their current economic predicament was directly tied to the tyranny of something called neoliberalism. (This has nothing to do with political liberalism, by the way. This is an economic framework that governs the way resources are spread from one country to the next.) The principles of neoliberalism allow for free trade between countries without a massive amount of tariffs and government regulations. Rather being heavily regulated, this economic model relies on the supply and demand of the global market to regulate itself, assuming that the more freedom it has to naturally do its thing, the greater the chances of the wealth it generates trickling down to all members of society. When Chavez was elected, he was quick to point out that the wealth is clearly not “trickling down” to the bottom rungs of Venezuelan society; therefore, he argued that it was necessary to fight against neoliberalism, and begin institutionalizing more government regulations because that is what will keep larger amounts of oil revenue in Venezuela, rather than giving so many discounts to already prosperous countries.

While the poor saw Chavez as their ticket to freedom and equality, the rich saw him as a threat to their livelihood and to the economic systems that Venezuela was originally founded upon. They were becoming increasingly wary of his growing friendship with Fidel Castro, and all of this was further escalated by the country’s media coverage—surprise, surprise. Perhaps media controversy is the one common denominator that unites us all?

In Venezuela, there are six media outlets. Five of these channels are privately owned and are extremely anti-Chavez, while one is owned and operated by the state. That station faithfully promotes Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Think of it as CNN versus Fox News. Think, also, of the way the media in the United States has been covering the health care debate and then multiply that times ten, and you will get an example of what was and still is going on in Venezuela.

In February 2002, the anti-Chavez camp was pushed to the limit when Chavez decided to fire a few of the top oil executives and replace them with loyal followers of the Bolivarian Revolution. At this point, Pedro Carmona, head of the largest business federation, called for everyone who was against Chavez to march and protest with him on April 11th. What started as a protest slowly revealed itself to be an elaborately staged coup to overthrow the president. Led by Carmona, the anti-Chavez group decided to storm Miraflores, the presidential palace. Meanwhile, the palace was being guarded by thousands of Chavez followers, and when the two groups collided, the police and military presence were greatly outnumbered. In the heat of anger and passion, gunfire broke out between the two sides, and the military—who were against Chavez—moved in bombs and tanks and threatened to set them off if he didn’t hand himself over. He eventually did, and was exiled for two days before coming back and reinstating his presidency. After all of their efforts, the coup failed.

If that weren’t enough of a political hotbed to be walking into, things were further intensified by the fact that my co-workers and I all happened to be American. Let’s just say that Chavez and the United States government were not the biggest fans of each other. You see, there are two things that many Americans hold dear: one is capitalism, and the other is cheap gasoline. Chavez was attacking both, and quite vehemently. In addition, right before staging the coup in 2002, Pedro Carmona and a man named Carlos Ortega, head of Venezuela’s largest trade union, took a trip to Washington to ask for our government’s support, and it has been widely speculated that the U.S. was somehow secretly involved. Multiple CIA investigations later, they found that we weren’t, but by that point the damage had already been done.

Do you want to know how much of this I knew when I arrived in Venezuela only three years later?

Zip, zilch, nada.

In fact, on April 11, 2002 when all of this was going down, I was studying abroad in Florence and was likely sipping a cappuccino in the middle of a sunny piazza somewhere. That is how far removed I was from Venezuelan politics. And I got the job at Optimal English so quickly after my TESOL Course in Barcelona that I had many other things to worry about and take care of besides studying up on political drama.

The only thing I do recall hearing was that just before I left, Pat Robinson—a religious radio host that Christianity is constantly having to apologize for—was in his usual habit of making offensive comments at the most inopportune times. In August of 2005, he had suggested that American operatives assassinate Chavez because he was leading his country to become “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism.” Where he got the Muslim extremism from is beyond me, since only 0.4% of the Muslim population lives in Venezuela, but then again, Robinson also made a recent comment that the reason Haiti had that major earthquake was because they had made “a pact with the devil” and this was their resulting punishment. I don’t think that even deserves a further response.

Rather than stopping to consider why Pat Robinson would want to call for Chavez’s assassination, I instead became too focused on the source of the comment. That led me to simply roll my eyes, continue packing, and assume that like most everything else he said, it was hardly worth listening to.

Days later, my plane landed at Caracas International Airport, and before I knew it, I was sitting in the backseat of my new boss’s SUV. It was late in the evening, at this point, and my first memory of the city was driving through a large group of mountains dotted with glittering, sparkles of light.

“I think those are the barrios,” Marissa said, leaning over and whispering to me. She and I were hired at the same time, and although the first leg of our flights had originated in different cities, we were able to meet each other a few hours earlier on our connecting flight from Atlanta, Georgia. “Millions of people live in them,” she continued, “and they steal electricity from the rest of the city.”

“What, the barrios?” our boss asked, apparently over-hearing the tail end of our conversation. “We’ll be talking more about that at orientation tomorrow morning – the parts of the city you can go in, and the parts you should stay out of. That’s a part you should definitely stay out of. It’s very dangerous. But don’t worry, you won’t be living anywhere near them.”

I stared up at the dimly lit mountains, finding myself unavoidably drawn to them. I squinted through the windows of the SUV as it barreled down the highway, trying desperately to make out little details beneath the blackness. It was a mountain shrouded in mystery, poverty, warnings, and limitations. But from where I was sitting, all I could see where the tiny dots of light.

* Just as a side note, I am changing the names of all of my friends in Venezuela out of respect for their privacy and because I haven’t spoken to many of them in quite some time. The only name I kept the same is Luis Araque because I only met him once, and because if I changed his name, then I’d have to make up a new name for his dad’s law firm, and I didn’t see the point in that.