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  1. Wealth
November 22, 2008

Venezuela, my homeland

By Spear's

Sitting outside my grandfather’s house, I tried to explain my past to my husband, and so the present of my homeland.

And there it was: the past ten years incarnate. Sitting outside the gates of my grandfather’s house, where I spent my school holidays, I tried to explain my past to my new husband, and in doing so to explain the present of my homeland.

“You see,” I said, “this is what has happened, happened all over, this decay. It was not like this.” “Yes, I see.” But I wondered if he did, craning his neck forward to peer through the windscreen to read the lone words Perros Furibundos (‘rabidly fierce dogs’) and watch me as I pleaded at the rusted gate, pressing the buzzer beneath a smashed lamp, the electronic eye of the surveillance camera too exhausted to register me, as if it wanted to see no more.

I ran my fingers over the expanding festering rust spots on the green metal door that used to shield me and now excluded me. No guard opened the security window; no one spoke over the intercom. My only response was the tired and measured bark of a lone dog, more jaded than fierce, and I wondered when was the last time he ate or saw a human. I wanted to rescue him and, in doing so, myself. And how could I explain?
We had arrived in Caracas to attend an old friend’s wedding: a traditional affair held at the Caracas 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.

What I found was a city tired and ravaged from ten years of the Chávez regime, dotted with the colourful posters of grinning candidates in the 23rd November elections (known simply as ‘23N’) for governors and mayors nationwide. Caracas and the people who inhabit her have been torn apart by what feels like a low-level civil war: chavistas-versus-opposition. The posters have become as emblematic as 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 anymore, Dorothy.

Chavistas, as Chávez supporters and cronies are called, come in four broad categories. First, there are the poor chavistas: ignorant and desperate hordes, filling the television screens at every Chávez rally with their ocean of red shirts the rally organizers tell them to wear, as they bribe them with a combination of money and alcohol to cheer for the cameras.

They earn more by attending the televised rally than they would with an honest day’s work, if they can get it. Regardless of their continually decaying socioeconomic situation, they continue to revere Chávez like a personal god or conquering hero, for he looks and sounds like them, and his constant rants against the wealthy go down well with them. These chavistas are too blind, or too ignorant, to see the inconsistencies.

Then there are the government chavistas, who are Chávez’s insider cronies, currently ruling Venezuela as if it were their kingdom. These soi-disant representatives and enforcers of the popular power are making millions daily. Even as they rail against the wealthy and the oligarchy against whom they say they must protect the Venezuelan people, they seek to emulate them: Chávez’s former Vice President, José Vicente Rangel, daily declaiming the scourge of the Altamira-based wealthy opposition, lives in Altamira himself, surrounded by 20 bodyguards. Not for them either the state schools, in which they profess so much faith. Oh, no, their children are at all the most prestigious schools in town, including the German, American and British. 

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A lot of money is also flowing to the opportunistic chavistas: not directly in government, these are the contractors and bankers and distributors who make masses of money by doing business with the Chávez regime.

They overcharge the government or the end client or both, profit 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 in Venezuela. In this the chavistas are no better than the chavs: they’ll buy it as long as the logo is big enough.

And the chavistas are as adept as chavs at finding ways to spend their new-found wealth.  Hummer (the chavista’s car of choice), unable to keep up with demand, has established an assembly plant here, though the roads on which they are driven are crumbling faster than a suspiro (meringue sweet) at a society wedding. No money to fix them, Chávez says; blame the (embattled) oligarchy. Or the Yankees. Anyone but him.

Yet Rolex’s sales have septupled since Chávez came to power a decade ago. And while my old society friends drank Johnnie Walker Black at the Country Club wedding, the chavistas at Sawu (a popular nightclub) poured Johnnie Walker Blue into their Coca-Colas. No matter if they ruin the taste; the bottle on the table achieves the desired effect.

But it is behind the crumbling walls of the Country Club mansions that the most pathetic chavistas are bred: the secret ones. Their incomes strangled either by financial misfortune or political design, they can no longer afford to keep up appearances or maintain their social status, or their mansions or 100,000-plus-acre estates, which Chávez is nationalizing.

This is a growing problem: the Country Club used to list those members remiss in their subscriptions on a wall of shame that often featured many of the country’s most illustrious names. Now, the list has gotten so embarrassingly long, they have had to stop the practice. In order to restore their fortunes and their estates, some of those fallen from grace have come groveling to the government, though they still masquerade as principled members of the upper-class and mock the heathen and gauche chavistas while playing golf or sipping a whiskicito at that evening’s 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 kind, the opposition. Talk about your conflict of interest – or identity crisis.

After all, conspicuous consumption is no longer an option for non-chavistas, for Orwellian paranoia has reached its long fingers into the minds of the opposition – which includes the Country Club set, which has now retreated into a fortress mentality here. The built-up walls surrounding their mansions now have electric wires above the spikes atop the high walls overlooked 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 a probable chavista. 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 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 political design; at the end of his televised speeches, there is a graphic incitement to violence: as his voice spews angry venom about the thieving wealthy who want to oppress the masses, he broadcasts videos of the poor beating Whites, setting cars on fire, looting, and throwing Molotov cocktails. It’s no wonder the prices of apartments has skyrocketed while houses have remained flat.

These days, there’s nowhere safer than one’s bulletproof car. My friend Veronica, currently leading her family’s negotiations with Chávez over his nationalization of their 200,000-acre estate, drives around in her armoured and bulletproof SUV. It has an ambulance siren, a huge honking sound and even a loudspeaker so the driver can address a riot – but you cannot open the windows. Her family have bought an entire fleet of identical cars to confuse potential kidnappers.

Fortunately, Venezuelans are pretty adaptable, and have even taken in their stride the sharp increase in kidnappings, currently quadruple those in Colombia. Kidnappings here fall into two categories: the high-ransom, well-organized ones, plotted with the aid of people’s Facebook pages, which reveal where they go, with whom and in what car; and the quick, opportunistic ones for small amounts of money, known as “kidnap express,” which recently happened to another 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 her husband, he paid, and then she found a hairdresser with valet parking.

The fear of violence is endemic. My husband was told to remove his expensive watch, lest it be taken away from him with a gun to his head, and that’s considered pretty standard. “Don’t take anything. Leave your purse behind,” warned my brother. “Don’t even take your sunglasses. Also, don’t speak until you are inside. Your voice will give you away,” added my sister-in-law.

I was going to my bank, now located in a chavista hotbed, and I was being prepped like I’d be running through the gauntlet at Checkpoint Charlie, or worse, a checkpoint in Baghdad. And it’s Baghdad that is now used as a reference point for the spiraling violence: more people die violently in Caracas every week than in Baghdad, I’m told.

Winding my way behind locked doors and obscured glass through narrow streets full of potholes and angry shouting people and crumbling buildings painted with the red emblem of Chávez, I saw another emblem of the era: beneath a bridge, one homeless man slept in a hammock, while another reclined on a discarded office chair, unwittingly symbolizing the capital flight and decay of independent business as Chávez consolidates his power and bloats his government, absorbing everything that is either profitable or opposes him.

Back ‘in the days of the 4.30’ (when Bs. 4.30 = US$1, rather than Bs. 5200 = US$1), things were not so. I used to accompany my mother to the Portuguese abastos (corner market) to pick out the chicken we would have for dinner and I enjoyed playing with all the fruits in the stands. There was plenty of food and no fear of violence.

Now, thanks to Chávez’s price controls, people have had to cue Soviet-style for three hours to get their staple beans, rice, corn flour or milk – that is, when it’s in stock. If they are fortunate enough to get even a little packet of powdered milk, they get their bellies painted Chávez red to indicate they have already benefitted from chavista generosity. It’s a miracle they’re not branded like cattle, really.

But Venezuelans are a resilient bunch. Even as their homes and streets crumble in time with their economic and political rights, they remain brave. Chávez is clearly scared by the upcoming 23N elections. He has been busy disqualifying the most promising opposition candidates from running, and his rhetoric is increasingly hysterical, saying he will imprison the candidates and militarily occupy the most important electorates if the opposition gains ground there.

And yet, they are not fazed. The opposition quietly carries on, without deigning to respond to falsified evidence and ludicrous accusations, going about its business of campaigning and organizing independent election supervisors. If they gain important ground, Chávez will not be able to amend the constitution to keep himself in power indefinitely, as he tried to do last December. So the opposition quietly chip away. They have faith that their time will come, now or in 2012.

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