Puerto Colombia Today, in 1498, Christopher Columbus, having sailed the ocean blue, landed in Venezuela for the one and only time he was to visit South America. Depending on your viewpoint, 12 October is a day of mourning for the indigenous indians, or a day of celebration of the discovery by Europeans of a new continent – whichever, it is marked by a national holiday that’s tacked on to the previous days to produce an ultra-long-weekend. Everyone’s on the move, and we join the locals making for the Caribbean coast on a bus crammed with happy families, the compulsory ear-splitting musica, topless men and bikini-clad babes, all winding our way over the mountains of the cordillera de la costa and down through the jungles of Henri Pettier national park (the country’s oldest) to the beach at Puerto Colombia.
Grey pelicans fish the sea, prowling from the air and then suddenly descending tens of metres in a vertical dive, plunging into the water and re-emerging with a flapping fish. Human fishermen unravel their tangled nets, chatting all the while, as crabs scurry over their bare feet, making off with the odd fish-head and tail.
Puerto Colombia is a slow-moving village of heat and insects and birdsong, painted one-storey shacks and pretty posadas centred around tree-shaded courtyards. Music is everywhere, relaxed and rhythmic as the scantily-clad bodies of the people.
We stay up the hill, a bus-ride from the beach, in rooms set in a jungle of a garden above a clean-flowing river. Iguanas lie out on the branch of a mango tree and bananas burst ripely out of their skins as they hang on the tree. In the evenings, a loud rave shakes up the pond as hundreds of frogs serenade each other in an explosion of electronica.
We cook for ourselves, finding meat and chicken, pasta and onions in the local stores. But we struggle to find fruit or vegetables anywhere in this tropical land of fertile soils. Venezuela has spent the past century living off its enormous oil reserves, neglecting production in anything else. In the 1960s, it was far and away the richest country in Latin America; now, we cannot find basic foodstuffs.
Pretty much everyone I speak to is ‘over’ Hugo Chavez and his Social Revolution. “The shops used to be full of foods, full of variety,” says Pedro Gonzales, who runs a tourist business. “We used to have a choice of 10 types of beans, five types of bread, 20 biscuit varieties… Now, no one has rice. I go from shop to shop and finally find some in a store owned by an old Chinese man, who keeps it secretly behind the counter. But he won’t sell it at the government price, because he is the only one who has it – I must pay 6 times as much.
“There used to be 10 different rice factories, but half of them left the country after Chavez made so many new complications, and of the others, 2 stopped production and the last three have been taken over by the government. Now, military men who know nothing about administrating a rice factory are in charge, so we have no rice.”
It’s not Pedro’s only gripe. Crime has spiralled out of all control with shootings and murders now so commonplace that they are no longer reported. Tourism has plummeted, Caracas is “like a war-zone, “and Chavez does nothing about it,” Pedro says. “Meanwhile, his extended family live in incredible luxury with all the cars and private planes our money can buy.”
More sinisterly, Pedro says, Chavez is trading oil for arms with his Middle East friends, “and for what? He won’t start a war with Colombia or Brazil – he would be crushed like a fly. No, he means to turn the guns on us, if we try to get rid of him,” Pedro fears. In 2009, 11 years into his presidency, Chavez, managed to amend the constitution to remove presidential term limits.
He is already pretty ubiquitous here, spending hours each night on Aló Presidente, a TV show in which he philosophises on everything from politics to personal affairs in an endless State of the Union address, mixed with light chat show. He has a very twittery twitter account and no wisdom that arises in the presidential head is thought too trivial to post. If Chavez is not around, then his hero, fellow Venezuelan revolutionary (albeit from the 19th century) Simón Bolívar is around to hammer home the message.
Bolivar really is everywhere, from street signs to statues, mural paintings to banknotes. The great South American liberator, who on his deathbed prophetically proclaimed: ” America is ungovernable. The man who serves a revolution ploughs the sea. This nation will fall inevitably into the hands of the unruly mob and then will pass into the hands of almost indistinguishable petty tyrants”, is the inspiration behind Chavez’s liberation from US-ideology.
Perhaps Chavez’s staunchest defender is Jherwin Aragortt, the former bodyguard of the president’s daughter Maria Gabriella, a man whose only criticism of Chavez is that “he is not enough like Castro”. We stay with Jherwin and his wife Lina, a lovely couple, who nevertheless feel it necessary to introduce me to each of their friends as “the right-wing journalist”, something that I cease to counter after the fifth occurrence, because, well, I suppose it’s true in comparison.
Jherwin has known Chavez since the latter’s pardon from prison in 1994 (Chavez was jailed for leading an unsuccessful coup in ’92); Lina for a few years less – and both refer to their dear leader in the adoring terms one might use for a demi-god. Jherwin, who was himself exiled for anti-government protests (including killing policemen) during the many years of brutal dictatorship, eulogises about Chavez’s military prowess. But do you think military expertise will be enough to solve the country’s economic problems, I ask him.
“He would talk to us all for hours and hours into the night – he is a man that can talk off-the-cuff for many hours well into the night, longer than your president [Jherwin frequently forgets that we are not from the US, unless the Falklands issue is raised…]. Do you not think that makes him more intelligent?” he says. “And he was always reading.”
Really? Which books did he read, I ask. “Oh, Mao Tse Tung, Bolivar, Carlos Marx, Castro…”
One of Jherwin’s jobs was to help arrange clandestine meetings between Chavez and the ‘revolutionaries’ in neighbouring countries, including the Sendoro Luminoso (Shining Path) and ELN, terrorist guerilla organizations from Peru and Colombia. Meetings were held on off-shore islands so that the illegal groups, posing as sunbathing tourists, wouldn’t risk capture.
For all Jherwin’s puppyish loyalty, weakness for any conspiracy theory making the rounds (including that HIV/Aids was introduced to Africa as a US weapon, and that Obama is poised to invade Venezuela to steal its water) and barely hidden frustrations over being essentially a fighting man without a clear battle to fight, he is a passionate believer in the central tenet of socialism: that the poor deserve a piece of the pie.
Before Chavez was elected, 80% of the country’s wealth was owned by 20% of its people, two-thirds of the population lived below the poverty line, almost all of the money generated from the nation’s vast oil reserves went to foreign ownership. Chavez has changed a lot. Wealth has been redistributed somewhat, with the nationalisation of a host of companies – although corruption mars these efforts. Literacy, always high here, has been more improved by free adult education programmes. There is now free healthcare and an extensive training programme for medics, shared with friendly neighbours Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua. There are still as many poor people, but no one starves now.
Land has been redistributed from rich individual owners to peasant farmers. During one of their jobs as a land and water redistributor, Jherwin received 3 bullets and Lina got one. They show me their scars.
What about the rice, I ask? “Chavez has opened co operative stores where all the food is available at affordable, set government prices. There is plenty of rice there. That’s where we shop with our comrades, the poor people,” Jherwin says.
We head into town to find a black market money changer who will change our few remaining US dollars into Bolivars – since Chavez fixed the exchange rate of the Bolivar to the US dollar, in 2005, the official rate is half to one-third of what it should be, and what the black market offers, so everyone must partake in this illegal money changing game. Inflation has been spiralling up to 30% a year, as oil production dwindles under state ownership and global oil prices fall.
We find the money changer, all the while keeping watch for gun-toting criminals, some in school uniform. Why is there so much crime here, I ask Jherwin.
Chavez has his hands tied, he answers. “I would come in with the military and bring order to the streets. But if Chavez did something like that, all his opponents would pounce on him and call him a Communist,” he explains. Thousands of murders a year, Chavez may tolerate, but name-calling and other ‘political dissent’, he does not.