Travelling in Chávez’s country

When I arrived in Venezuela the 8th of June, president Chávez was already in Cuba, to talk with his friends Fidel and Raúl Castro. He’s still there, I’m back in Colombia and wish to return to that strange country, that is Venezuela where many complain about political and economic paralysis and where the poor are glad with a president who gives them a job, free education and healthcare. Two floors of my 8 floor hotel in Caracas were crowded with flood victims. Measure of the government. Is that bad? There are many sides to the Chávez story.

I’ll start with something that was like a remarkable nostalgia for me. The last time I visited Venezuela, 23 years ago, which was also the first time, I was surprised by the huge American cars you see in its streets. They are still there, 23 years older and beautiful in their heroic decay. They are big, so they are perfect ‘carritos’, that is how they call the shared taxis in the country. They consume a lot of gasoline, but since that is still very cheap in Venezuela – cheaper than water – that is not a problem.

23 years ago Venezuela was the first country I visited on my first trip to Latin America. I didn’t know what to expect and was a little nervous. I didn’t like the people. I thought they were arrogant and hated it that they drank and ate from plastic cups and plates. Now after having lived 8,5 years in its western neighbour Colombia, I liked them a lot better. They are not as friendly as Colombians, but they have this not badly intended boldness that Spaniards have as well. Coño (cunt) is a very frequently used word, as in Spain.

One of the biggest issues is the insecurity of the country. Chavistas and anti-chavistas complain about that.  And there I had a problem as I had to bring cash money. The official, government fixed rate, is about 2,5 bolívares fuertes for one US dollar. The black market rate is at least 8 bolívares fuertes for one US dollar. A friend of a friend in my Colombian residence town Barranquilla had convinced I would stay at the Club Gallego (Galician Club), in Maracaibo, my first stop. The club members play tennis, swim and dance Galician folk dances at their club have only one issue to talk: insecurity. They told me the only places I could go were shopping malls. Not true. At my second stop, Barquisimeto, I decided to travel my own way and walk the streets – although not at night –  and I was fine.

The disadvantage if you are travelling as a tourist is that you cannot go as easily to places that are considered dangerous. You need contacts who introduce you. But I found them, during my last ride, back from Maracaibo to Maicao, in Colombia’s Guajira. I was in a carrito full of chavistas, at last, because I had only met people who are against ‘el comandante. I understand their reasons, but of course I want to hear the other side of the story. Chávez offers jobs, he made health care and education free, is their main argument. One of them was a Colombian woman from one of the most violent regions of Colombia, who had arrived in Venezuela as an illegal immigrant but who now had a ‘passer’s by’-card. She was intensely happy with it. She was travelling to Maicao to pick up her 3 years old boy and take him to Caracas. She was so excited.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay the time I had intended to stay, because Dutch press agency ANP needed news from Peru and Argentina and not from Venezuela. I spent a whole day in an internet place in Caracas to look for information on the Argentinian case. WiFi is of poor quality, even in the more expensive hotels (at least that was my experience).

But I will go back. The first news that we are waiting for is: what’s happening to Chávez? He is still in Cuba and is said to be very ill. Silence, deep silence, from the island of the Revolution. As happened when Fidel Castro was ill a few years ago.

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