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January 24, 2006

Notes on my weekend in Venezuela
Posted by Adam Isacson

I just returned this evening from two days and three nights in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where I spoke about U.S. policy before a gathering of hundreds of faith-based peace and human-rights activists from both Colombia and Venezuela. While I’ve been to Colombia more than 25 times, I’d never set foot in Venezuela before. Here are a few impressions based on a visit that was much too brief.

Maracaibo is Venezuela’s second-largest city, in the country’s northwest about 2 hours’ drive from Colombia. It is a scorching-hot port (it was over 90 degrees in the shade) in the middle of the country’s oil-producing heartland. However, you wouldn’t know from looking at Maracaibo that Venezuela has been a top oil-producing nation for nearly half a century. The roads and other infrastructure I saw were in no better shape than what one sees in Bogotá, Medellín or Cali. Slums abounded, and many storefronts and shopping centers were empty.

The fact that Maracaibo doesn’t look like Oslo, Dubai or at least Houston is a stark testament to monumental past levels of corruption, which drained away much of Venezuela’s oil wealth. We too often forget that one of the main reasons President Hugo Chávez is popular – perhaps more than abstract ideas like “imperialism,” the “Washington Consensus” or “Bolivarianism” – is a generalized disgust with the people who preceded him. People like former President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who was impeached for corruption in 1993 and is now a very wealthy resident of Miami. Many Venezuelans who do not consider themselves “socialists” nonetheless view the current government as an improvement, merely because it is sharing oil wealth widely rather than with a privileged few.

All around town, one sees graffiti on walls, old posters and faded t-shirts saying “Sí” and “No.” These are leftovers from the August 2004 recall vote that failed to unseat Chávez (the “No” votes won a clear majority). In 2002, much of Chávez’s opposition supported a coup attempt which, for about two days that April, pushed Chávez out of power and received expressions of approval from the Bush administration and the New York Times editorial page, among others. (Chávez supporters take for granted that the United States planned and aided the April 2002 coup, though the State Department has denied any wrongdoing [PDF format].) In 2003, the opposition organized an economically crippling national strike, which also backfired politically. In 2004, the recall effort ultimately failed for lack of votes. It is not clear what the opposition – which remains divided and in many cases discredited by association with unpopular, corrupt past governments – plans to do next, other than present a candidate in the next presidential election, scheduled for the end of the year.

Some slogans were seen repeatedly on signs and heard on the news: “21st Century Socialism.” “Venezuela: Now it is Everyone’s.” Though Chávez was elected (and reelected), his supporters have taken to referring to his government as a “revolution.”

I found it hard to spend any money during my visit, because very few ATMs were coughing up Bolívares, the currency. (Of eight attempted, all but two were either out of order or off network.) And unlike Cuba, nobody had any use for dollars.

Nonetheless, capitalism is very much alive in Maracaibo. I saw no posters and billboards seeking to whip up revolutionary fervor, as one sees in Cuba. Che Guevara’s face was nowhere in evidence. (This may be in part because Maracaibo is considered one of the least pro-Chávez parts of the country.) Much more evident were McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Citibank, all makes of cars and all brands of clothing. Venezuela’s TV stations – most of them quite friendly to the opposition – continue to sell lots of commercial time during their highly rated soap operas. (Venezuelan soaps are popular all over the world, from Russia to China to Africa.)

Many of the Venezuelan religious activists participating in this weekend’s gathering, both Catholic and Protestant, were fervently pro-Chávez, as they came from a liberation theology background (or its Protestant equivalent). “The time of God has arrived for Venezuela,” one said.

The event – to my surprise and to the initial alarm of many Colombian participants – took place at a military installation: the Círculo Militar, what is essentially the Maracaibo officers’ club or recreation center. The government offered use of the installation’s amenities, including hotel rooms for dozens of guests and a big air-conditioned meeting hall. Apparently, the Chávez government has ordered the military to open up these facilities, which used to be for the exclusive use of the officer corps, to public use. The Círculo Militar had clearly seen better days, though. Its roads were unevenly paved, construction debris blocked a walkway, an empty bar with all the chairs up on the tables played loud music near a pool filled with opaque green water.

Bored-looking soldiers wandered in and out of the meeting space, even as some participants condemned (with no apparent irony) U.S.-inspired policies that sought to “militarize” Latin America. After years of working in Colombia, this took some getting used to. In Colombia, if someone in uniform were to show up at a gathering of activists promoting peace and human rights, the discussion would stop immediately, and the organizers would politely explain that their presence was illegal and ask them to leave. In Colombia, where military intelligence is known to keep dossiers on non-governmental human-rights activists, the idea of peace and human-rights NGOs holding any kind of meeting at a military installation is beyond unthinkable.

Official support for the event went even further, though. Several of the meals provided to the hundreds of participants were paid for entirely by the “social development fund” of PDVSA, the government-run oil company.

In my remarks, I had expressed concern about the profusion of new internal roles that the Venezuelan military is now playing. Soldiers are carrying out civilian construction projects, teaching in schools, handing out food and providing healthcare, while active-duty officers are occupying many posts formerly held by civilians. (If Southern Command were aggressively encouraging Latin American militaries to take on such roles, so soon after difficult transitions from military to civilian rule in much of the region, we’d be trying to stop it.) I had also questioned the Venezuelan government’s recent rash of arms purchases, including 100,000 AK-47s from Russia, planes from Brazil, and $2 billion worth of boats and planes from Spain. ($2 billion is equivalent to what the United States sells all of Latin America in 3 years.)

Later, over a couple of beers, two pro-Chávez pastors from Maracaibo challenged me on these points. Like many conversations I find myself getting into, both in Latin America and in Washington, this mainly consisted of them asking me questions (“What is your objection to the arms purchases?”), then me getting in about a sentence before they would cut me off and give me the lecture they had originally planned to give. So I listened instead.

On militarization and increased military roles, paraphrasing: “Unlike the rest of South America, Venezuela has never been in a war since its independence 185 years ago. But this is the army of Simón Bolívar, we’re not about to abolish it the way Costa Rica or Panama did, just because there haven’t been any wars. The Venezuelan army has always been very closely tied to the common people, and has not played a major role in past repression. [Note: between independence and 1959, Venezuela in fact spent much time under absolutist military rule.] Instead of going to war, our officers have spent many years studying all kinds of topics. Why shouldn’t they put that knowledge to use?”

On arms purchases: “We need to replace very old equipment. Do you know how old our army’s Belgian FAL rifles are?” (Me: “No.”) “They’re now almost 70 years old.” (Me: “And because you haven’t fought wars or suffered military repression, they’ve never been fired in anger?”) “No, they haven’t. So why is everyone so worried about a bunch of Russian rifles?”

Your beer choices, as far as I could tell, are: Regional, Regional Light, Polar, and Polar Ice. They all taste the same. This is not unique to Venezuela, nor a product of “socialism.” For some reason, even the most pro-free-trade countries in the hemisphere are very protectionist where their national breweries (usually monopolies) are concerned.

On a main shopping street, a large billboard advertising a government program, featuring a photo of President Chávez, bears the marks of what appear to be several paintballs.

Maracaibo is a very spread-out city. Like most Latin American cities, the downtown is a bit dilapidated and abandoned, while outlying neighborhoods have almost become separate cities in their own right, sort of like Los Angeles or Houston. Like those cities, Maracaibo seems to require a car to get around. This is of course beyond the economic reach of most of the population, though the incredibly cheap gas prices – about 25 cents per gallon! – make it a bit easier. Because of the low-cost subsidized gas, people show less concern for fuel efficiency in their choice of cars. One sees many more big U.S.-made sedans here than elsewhere in Latin America or in Europe. However, Maracaibo’s depressed economy is evident in that the gas-guzzler of choice is not a late-model SUV (there were some, but not an overwhelming presence). Instead, one sees a profusion of badly battered 30-year-old sedans and station wagons; what were once Buick Rivieras or Ford LTDs are now hulks with bald tires and their bumpers, if attached at all, hanging off at crazy angles.

From Sunday’s papers:

  • The pro-opposition El Universal frets about the embarrassing recent collapse of a 50-year-old viaduct holding up the only highway between Caracas and the Caribbean coast, which lies about an hour away over a ridge of mountains. Caracas’ international airport is on the other side of those mountains; until the bridge is fixed, it takes 3 or 4 hours, by back roads, to get to the capital from its main airport. The paper notes that thousands of left-wing activists from around the world will be taking that trip later this week, as a regional meeting of the World Social Forum (the annual gathering begun in Porto Alegre, Brazil) takes place in Caracas. The paper shows a picture of scruffy-looking activist types arriving in the airport, while another pro-opposition Caracas paper, El Nacional, argues that “the objective for which the World Social Forum was created could enter into crisis if the government uses it as part of a propaganda campaign in favor of President Chávez.”

  • El Universal interviews the defense minister, who is an active-duty admiral:
    … Q: Retired officers assert that several proposed changes in military education seek to politicize the national armed forces. They speak of communism.
    A: The high command has always wanted to pursue this idea. Are you telling me that we’re going to study communist ideology? No. All kinds of philosophy are going to be analyzed. I believe that Venezuela is very far from communism, diametrically opposed in fact. This is a social model. It is very simple for people to associate “21st century socialism” with communism, but they are two different things. There is no serious basis for calling this a communist state. Here there is a consumer society and a socially participatory government in which the people play a leading role.

  • Former planning minister and likely opposition presidential candidate Miguel Rodríguez tells El Universal, “I don’t see him [Chávez] as a dictator. There are still some freedoms. But there is a concentration of power that denatures the essence of democracy.”

  • The pro-Chávez Diario Vea contends that elements of the opposition plan to ambush an opposition protest march that day in Caracas, then pin the blame on the government.

  • Following an exchange of strong words between Chávez and top Catholic Church leaders earlier in the week, Vea argues that “A sector [of the Church] tied to dark interests, with the definite purpose of competing for power, has become a destabilizing factor.”

They have baseball in January! What I saw on TV indicated full stadiums, fervent fans and no steroid problem. Unlike most other countries where baseball is popular (Japan, Korea, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba), Venezuela has never played host to U.S. troops for a significant amount of time. I don’t now how baseball caught on. Among all foreign countries, only the Dominican Republic supplies more U.S. Major League baseball players than Venezuela.

One Chávez supporter I spoke to, who came from near the Colombian border, admitted concern about whether the Venezuelan government’s vastly increased social investments were in fact reaching the poorest. She said she was worried that political influence and clientelism might be coming to play too much of a role in determining where – which regions, towns and neighborhoods – were getting the most investment in schools, clinics, roads, food security and other largesse.

I was talking to some Chávez supporters about populism. I expressed a view that the Venezuelan government doesn’t seem to be particularly socialist. They agreed. I added that, if anything, Hugo Chávez often reminds me of Juan Perón, who ruled Argentina from 1946 to 1955 (and whose wife was once played, rather poorly, by Madonna). Not just because the two share a big personality, a political base among the poor and militarist tendencies, but the fact that both leaders had a great deal of money to spend.

During World War II, Argentina sold a lot of raw materials and food, at elevated prices, to the countries doing the fighting – but these countries were too busy fighting to have anything to sell to Argentina. As a result, Argentina’s national treasury ballooned just as Perón was coming to power. Perón spent it all and put Argentina into debt by the time he was deposed, and the economy of Argentina – which was one of the world’s ten richest countries as recently as 1930 – never recovered.

Those I spoke with admitted some similarity, since both leaders, as “populists,” sharply increased government spending on redistribution to the poor. But they rejected my general idea. First, they said (paraphrasing), “So what if it is populism? People who were near starvation before now have food security, and thousands of them now have decent houses to live in.” Besides, they argued, Venezuela’s oil money looks to be longer-lasting than Perón’s postwar surplus. “Almost every analyst says the price of oil will remain high for a very long time, thanks to global demand.” They added that those who draw up Venezuela’s national budget assume an oil price of $26 per barrel; it has been twice that, or more, since 2004. “Our foreign exchange reserves are at record levels. We’re paying down our debt, and buying up other countries’ debt, including U.S. bonds.”

Juan Perón with limitless money to spend? These are the sort of bad analogies one comes up with when one hasn’t spent enough time in the country one is writing about…


Postscript: I thank Democracy Arsenal for kindly inviting me to be a contributor for ten days – and now I think it’s actually been more like 12 days. It has been a great opportunity to add a little Latin America content to one of my favorite blogs. This will be my last post for now; for continued regular Latin America-related posts, do visit CIP’s “Plan Colombia and Beyond” blog.


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» Notes on my weekend in Venezuela from Plan Colombia and Beyond
In my final post to Democracy Arsenal, I offer a few random observations on what I saw and heard during my first-ever visit to Venezuela this past weekend. I was in Maracaibo to speak before a terrific gathering of hundreds... [Read More]


Chávez supporters take for granted that the United States planned and aided the April 2002 coup, though the State Department has denied any wrongdoing...

Where did Chavez supporters get that impression?

NY Times, April 16, 2002:

Senior members of the Bush administration met
several times in recent months with leaders of a coalition that ousted the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, for two days last weekend, and agreed with them that he should be removed from office, administration officials said today.

The fact that the coup plotters fled to Miami after it failed also didn't help.

Thanks for stopping by, Adam. Interesting description of the country.

Cal. I think you don't have your facts right. The coup plotters did not flee to Miami. They stayed in Venezuela and were tried by the Supreme Court and were found not guilty. The only one that truly fled was Pedro Carmona (he went to Colombia). After the trial many military officers did leave the country because they were being tried twice for the same crime (double jepordy) which is illegal! As for the coup, did the US know this was going to to happen yes, but so did everyone else in Venezuela (it wasn't a secret). BTW the "coup" occured because Chavez has violated the constitution countless times including on april 11 20002 when he called on the military to repress the population (with live bullets) "Plan Avila", so this simple action doesn't merit to ask him to resign? Maybe you would feel different if Bush called on the military to shoot peaceful protestors in D.C or out side his ranch in TX.

The roads and other infrastructure I saw were in no better shape than what one sees in Bogotá, Medellín or Cali. Slums abounded, and many storefronts and shopping centers were empty.

The fact that Maracaibo doesn’t look like Oslo, Dubai or at least Houston is a stark testament to monumental past levels of corruption, which drained away much of Venezuela’s oil wealth. We too often forget that one of the main reasons President Hugo Chávez is popular – perhaps more than abstract ideas like “imperialism,” the “Washington Consensus” or “Bolivarianism” – is a generalized disgust with the people who preceded him. People like former President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who was impeached for corruption in 1993 and is now a very wealthy resident of Miami. Many Venezuelans who do not consider themselves “socialists” nonetheless view the current government as an improvement, merely because it is sharing oil wealth widely rather than with a privileged few.

Agreed, but Chávez has been in power for several years now. At what point should people expect basic infrastructure improvements?

While I do agree that past governments were not great, venezuelans voted for Chavez hoping for a change to eliminate corruption, bring justice, and improve the country. instead Chavez is no different than the previous governments, I would even argue he is worse. As for the previous comments, CAP was impeached for corruption Yes, but not personal enrichment it was due to funding a political campaign in Nicaragua (I belive). But one must not forget Chavez revceived 1.5 million from BBVA (a spanish bank) this is illegal, but Chavez was never taken to trial. The CEO of the bank was! My understanding is that CAP is not in Miami but travels to NYC and the Dominican Republic. BTW housing construction for the poor averages about 20,000 units vs. the average of ~70,000 for the previous 40 years (the best Chavez years fall very short from the worst non-chavez years). In addition the main high way has collapsed, as have the highway to the east and west of Caracas. Yet the governemnt refuses the help of Venezuelan engenieers simply because they are not "revolutionary". Now tell me does that make sense?

Cal. I think you don't have your facts right. The coup plotters did not flee to Miami. They stayed in Venezuela and were tried by the Supreme Court and were found not guilty. The only one that truly fled was Pedro Carmona...

I see the link I gave is broken. So here's the Times of London, April 24, 2002:

In the aftermath of Venezuela's failed coup, the United States faces further potential embarrassment after the discovery that several alleged coup leaders fled to Miami. They include Isaac Perez Recao, 32, a reputed arms-dealer and heir to a Venezuelan oil fortune. With a group of armed bodyguards, Senor Perez Recao played a highly visible role in the April 12-13 coup...

That was just a couple weeks after the coup, so these plotters weren't tried at all to my knowledge.

If over 60% of Venezuelans want Chavez for president, it is not our place to say he must go. How would you feel about foreign countries calling for Nixon to resign after Kent State?

Cal, the coup was not staged by Recao but by the closest members of the armed forces to Chavez. In short Chavez called the military to repress the demonstration by people protesting against him, this prompted/used as an excuse to ask him to resign. The announcement that Chavez resigned was announced by one of Chavez's closest and trusted ministers around midnight. The minister of Defense Lucas Rincon who BTW after Chavez was brought back to power was given another ministerial job (makes you wonder). As for the trial here is the link

BTW, support for Chavez is difficult to determine but it isn't 60%, the latest poll figures put it at best ~45%. but again this number is very volitile so it is difficult to determine. Yes, I agree foreign countries and people should not get involved in the situation, but that would include this article! As a Venezuelan and an American I do take issue with people lecturing me on Venezuela as if they know something about it or its history. Equally when people lecture me on the US who know close to nothing about the US, it's culture and history.

Sadly, most people that support Chavez are not Venezuelans or know anything about it's history, except what the Veneuzelan propagonda machine is selling here int he US (which is a lot). Yes, the US should not get involve in Venezuela but neither should Cuba or Iran, and Chavez shouldn't get invloved in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, or Mexico but he does! Sadely Chavez has now ignored the poor for the past 2 years since they have surved his purpose to amass power. All is not well in the Revolution, but belive me it will be his own people that get rid of him.

kA, that is fascinating!

Essentially every US citizen who has heard about the coup and its aftermath believes that the coup was planned by US citizens in DC, and that it failed. Most of the disagreement is whether it should have been planned by US citizens in DC and whether it's a bad thing that it failed.

Now you tell us that it was not a coup at all, and that the instigators were not punished but keep their high government positions and work in harmony with Chavez while the traditional corruption continues. And everybody knew it was coming except the US media who told us after it happened that it was a coup.

Yet another example that shows the US media is no better reporting foreign news than it is reporting domestic news.

I disagree with your claim that this article is unwarranted interference in venezuela's internal affairs. There is nothing wrong with private citizens telling private US citizens about venezuela. In theory we're responsible for our government and it's good for us to get some idea what's going on. When our government chooses to take military action against venezuela we should have some basis to approve or disapprove beyond what the US media tells us.

J. Thomas, the events of April 2002 were very confusing and you could spend significant amount of time on it. But I wil try to sumarize what happened and some of what lead to it. Every one is aware that Chavez is a polarizing figue, so he and the military never got along and Chavez always (still does) distrusted the military (hence he has created a new malitia force). Some of the distrust is historical and personalities and plus Chavez not high ranking official when he was in the military. Chavez kept agitating the opposition and the military making them hand out food, clean streets, build homes etc.. Officers complained about the border with Colombia and the FARC entering (Chavez just ignored it). In Feb 2002 Pedro Soto a high ranking official of the airforce went into civil disobediance and denounce Chavez. This was the first public knowledge of things were bad in the military. Then the strike occured in April 9th 2002, that was then called an indefinate strike by the labor union and the business organization and PDVSA. This was decause Chavez was trying to elimate the independence of PDVSA and put his people as head of the company. April 11th the opposition march was "spontanously" called to go to the presidential palace to ask for Chavez to resign. Chavez called on the military to repress the demonstration, most refused to do it, this prompeted for Chvez to resign, and the minister of defense announced this around midnight. For some reason Pedro Carmona took over, power vacume? Either way he made very poor dicisions (unconstitutional ones). The military then asked him to resign, he did, but by then Chavez loyal military officers took advantage of the power vacume and brought Chavez back.

As for the CIA did they know, YES! but so did anyone that was paying attention to what was going on in Venezuela. About a month before april 11 some military officers visted DC. and had meetings. I will assume that they did discuss that if an opportunity presented itself they would remove Chavez. Which it did on april 11 when he ordered the military to repress civilians (by force if necessary). Was the forced resignation merited (I would say yes). From what I have read the Venezuelan officials asked for the help of washington but they declined to take any part in it. The famous US documents suggesting DC was behind it simply say that a coup was likely but that the situation at the time was not right for one. So you see it was simply an intellegence report. The coup wasn't a secret, it has simply been made to seem that way.

sorry for the length. Sadely you have to live in Venezuela and read the papers there to really get a feel for what is going on. For an outsider, it is very confusing with every minor event being of some significance. As for my comments about the article they were directed more towards non Venezuelans that say Chavez is great and that he has done such a great job. Most of them seem to think "he is anti-Bush, I am anti-Bush, so Chavez must be great!" In my opion this is a terrible way to think. Personally I don't like Bush but I sure don't like Chavez. I will admit some of the things he has implemented are good but they way he has done it and how they are carried out are not. Overall corruption is up, insecurity is up, fewer jobs, etc....

Sorry for my rant!

Adam: I was posted in Maracaibo in the late 80s when we still had a U.S. Consulate there. You've done a good job of describing the city and the importance of a cold "Polar" on a brutally hot day. The city reached its zenith in the late 70s during the last boom in oil revenues. The buildings and roads constructed then are the same ones you saw slowly decaying now. In assessing the political climate I think you overlook one key factor. The Marachuchos have a long-simmering resentment toward Caracas. They produce the oil and the capital revels in the profits. Attitudes toward Chavez are clearly colored by this second-city complex and account for his lower popularity in in Maracaibo and Zulia state. You may also be interested to know that under Secretary Rice's newly announced reorganization plan, the U.S. is going to reopen a small Consulate in Maracaibo.

kA, thank you. It sounds inspiring to hear there's a nation where you can get a feel for what's going on by reading the papers.

I agree that it's silly to decide if Bush is bad then Chavez must be good. That's as bad as thinking that if Clinton was bad then Bush must be better. I suspect a lot of it might be hope. When there's a long history of corruption, somebody who comes in claiming to clean it up will get the benefit of the doubt for awhile. But it sounds like Chavez doesn't know how to do it, or he doesn't want to. Unfortunate.

If you have people you can depend on, you can have them interact with the officials who might be corrupt and catch some of the bad ones. But when the corruption-catchers are corrupt too, they'll just demand a cut from everybody to not get turned in as bad....


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