3 September, 2015
By Joshua Tartakovsky
(All photos by Joshua Tartakovsky (C) all rights reserved 2015).
It’s been several weeks since I left Venezuela after a two week long stay there. It is time I will put some of my experiences down on paper. But before I proceed, there are several qualifying points, which need to be made.
I am not knowledgeable about the deep workings of Venezuelan politics. I am unfamiliar with many beyond-the- basic facts about Venezuela that even medium-level pundits are knowledgeable of. I do not intend to disparage the Venezuelan people or to downplay the meddling, which is illegal by international law, of the United States in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, which quite possibly include more than one attempt to topple an elected president from power, including by assassination attempts.
All I have therefore is what I saw and what I learned from conversations with different people during my time in Caracas. I must say, however, that I did not encounter any tourists in Caracas and only at the airport did I encounter a few tourists from Trinidad who were too fearful to make their way deep inside the city and remained in the outskirts in a touristy area. Therefore, my experiences, however limited, have value since there is nothing like seeing with one’s eyes. Due to fact that I stated the reservations above, I will write about my impressions anyway. I am posting my writings in a blog rather than submitting an article for publication due to the same reservations.
Several things have changed since my departure. In the past several weeks, the Venezuelan government has taken decisive steps to restoring the rule of law in the country. These include, sending police forces to liberate poor areas in and around Caracas from the intimidating presence of drug gangs, many of them but not all, run by Colombians. The Venezuelan government also recently sealed the border with Colombia in certain areas declaring a state of emergency and deported undocumented Colombians from the country. These are positive steps, and I will explain why later.
(now peaceful, Montalbán III barrio, cleared by the police in “Operación de Liberación del Pueblo”. Photos by Joshua Tartakovsky)
Coming to Caracas, I did not expect perfect security as in Cuba, and it is also unfair to compare Venezuela to Cuba. First, Cuba is an island and does not share a huge border with a hostile government of Colombia that has probably been sending gangs and paramilitary units across to border to wreck havoc. Secondly, in Cuba the revolution has been completed, while in Venezuela, there has not been a completed revolution, and I dare add that calling the impressive social gains made in Venezuela a “revolution “or a “Bolivarian revolution” does injustice to the popular sense of what a revolution entails when one considers the historical precedents of the French and Cuban revolutions. My sense was that the words “revolution” are used all too often in signs, publications and discourse to gain the support of the people and to inspire them but where is the revolution? The democratic election of Chavez was not a revolution, it was electoral politics. The people of Venezuela did not engage in a revolution, since the government was not toppled by the people. Therefore, the word is being, in my opinion anyway, misused to a degree that robs genuine revolutions, such as the Cuban revolution, for their right to fame.
I came to Caracas then expecting turbulence of some kind due to my vague sense of the economic war taking place by enemies of Venezuela, both by local oligarchs and the United States. But I did not realize to what degree things were difficult.
I stayed in a poor barrio in Caracas during the entire duration of my stay, in an area most middle-class Venezuelans would never dare set their foot in. There things were actually very peaceful. Children, whose singing could be heard from the apartment I was staying in which a local kindly lent to me, attended the school every morning. There was no violence and I could sit outside with my laptop without worrying someone will come and snatch it from me. A large police station nearby helped, perhaps, secure the area, but many locals I bought things from were kind and friendly, and therefore I do not think the presence of the police was needed to ensure their generosity. The poor people of the area, who traditionally are despised by the middle class and the media, were friendly and generous for the most part. There were a few posters supporting Maduro in the area and the people seem to benefit from the social changes enacted. Regular transportation did not arrive in the barrio, but vans and motorcycles were used to make one’s way there.
The economic situation, however, was quite difficult. The very high inflation means that bolivars had to be spent as soon as possible.
A few words of explanation on the economic situation:
A dollar brought to the country in cash, can be traded in the black market for about 600-700 bolivars. The fluctuating rate, which constantly tends to ascend, is determined by a Twitter account called DollarToday (while the website has been blocked by the government) which may be run by those who seek to destabilize the country but which nevertheless has a significant effect on how dollars are traded in the black market. Due to very high inflation, two major things result. The first is that as soon as one earns some cash, one seeks to spend it as quickly as possible since prices constantly rise. Prices are high. For example, a soup may cost about 350 bolivar, a pack of cigarettes, 150 bolivar, and a few pieces of chicken at least 600 bolivar. These are all prices in the barrio, while in other parts of the city prices were higher. One would pay about 20-30 bolivar for a single cigarette but it the streets it was rare a stranger would give one a cigarette for free unless one was at a party. Due to the very high inflation, then, local bolivars when taken out of the country are worth very little. The second ramification is that locals seek to hold onto dollars and not trade them when possible since their worth will only in crease in time. However, for those who earn in Bolivars, cannot really travel since the currency will be worth very little abroad.
During my time later on in the Dominican Republic I encountered Venezuelans there. Many Venezuelans come to work for a few days or months in Santo Domingo, earn a few dollars and then return home where their foreign money is worth quite a lot. I saw for myself in Santo Domingo how several high school students or recent graduates were selling fake CDs in a 4 day trip with the goal of earning some money and taking it home as they told me themselves. That young students who were about 18 years old would have to engage in such activity reveals how difficult things are.
A dollar traded in the bank officially, or pulled out of an ATM machine, however, is worth about six bolivars only. This is how big the gap is between the black market rate and the official rate.
Petrol is extremely cheap in Venezuela and in fact less expensive than a Coke. Venezuela has the lowest price of petrol in the world. This means then that there is an excess of cars and motorcycles on the road, which also happen to speed quite a lot. I was nearly hit several times by a motorcycle when walking down the barrio I was staying in to the metro station. It also means that Venezuela has not been producing enough of its own industries although recently strides have been made in cars and technology, and that it is vulnerable to international speculation and fluctuations as well as to the hoarding of goods produced abroad. While in theory, local communes can provide the basic goods needed and then only luxurious goods would be imported from abroad, such steps have not been taken yet. Indeed, a friend who was wounded visited 3 pharmacies and could not locate an anti-septic cream. This means the situation is quite dire.
Since Caracas is trapped in a Valley between several mountains, the air is deeply polluted and one cannot breath clean air. This results in a nauseating feeling. And since one can nearly get run over when crossing the street if one does not pay attention, when one walks around, one has to be extremely watchful. The speed with which cars and motorcycles make their way around creates a prevailing sense of chaos and disorder.
Despite the fact that the price of petrol is incredibly cheap, the government has not raised the prices even a slight amount, although this would create revenue for the state and despite the health risks of pollution.This suggests that the government is engaging in populism by refusing to take a step demanded by common sense due to its need to get reelected in December when parliamentary elections will take place.
As if the speeding cars and high pollution were not bad enough, Caracas is very dangerous. When I said earlier that I was never in such a dangerous place, several people responded with scorn, presumed that I had one traumatic experience and resorted to generalizations, or attacked me for being anti-Venezuelan or falling into exaggerations.
Allow me to explain what I mean.
I lived in Ramallah in the past. A wall in several directions surrounds Ramallah, and the Israeli military frequently fires on protesters nearly the Qalandiya checkpoint. However, Ramallah itself, and as long as military jeeps do not raid a given home, is actually quite peaceful. One can walk around at 2 AM from a bar to one’s home in safety. There is a quiet breeze which blows through the trees and creates a sense of calm while one can sip a glass of juice in a square while smoking a cigarette without worrying about one’s safety. One can walk around various streets in the downtown area without being robbed or attacked. The city is peaceful. (Of course, not every part of the greater Ramallah is 100% secure, but the downtown and center of the city is widely peaceful).
In Donetsk, in East Ukraine, which I visited in April, residential neighborhoods by the airport are bombed on a regular basis. However, in the downtown area, although a missile may every once in a while hit the area, cafes are open until 11 PM, one an walk around peacefully without being attacked or robbed, and there is a surprising sense of calm and tranquility in the center of the city.
In Caracas, however, there is a very different situation. The impoverished barrio, where I stayed, was indeed peaceful. But as soon as I made my way down the hill to the main street, things were less peaceful. First of all, all shops close more or less around 7 AM, if not earlier. It is extremely dangerous to walk around almost all areas of the city, including downtown, late at night and it is advisable to take a taxi or a metro to get anywhere. On one occasion for example, I visited with friends a home of other friends in a different part of the city in a middle-class neighborhood. There was a guard at the entrance to the compound. At around 1 AM, we started making our way by foot back to the main street after the party was over, seeking a taxi to get us home. However, not only did all calls we made to the taxi company end in failure, as they refused to drive this late to the middle-class neighborhood where we were, but when we started making our way in the main street, threatening sounds could be heard in the distance, and my friends and I were very careful in walking in a group and seeking to measure the threat from a distance. We could not locate a single taxi after waiting for about a half an hour in a street that has few lamps. Finally, we had to make our way back to the home of the friend. But since he was already asleep by then, he did not open the door for us and we ended up sleeping in a park inside the compound for several hours. When the first rays of light emerged in the morning and as it was getting chilly, we finally made our way back on the streets, now more visible, and took a bus back home.
One who walks around alone downtown at night then, runs the risk of being attacked by street criminals, robbed and even shot to death, or attacked by motorcycled gangs, many of them run by Colombians, who roam different areas and escape quickly. Many people carry hand-guns in the city. One can easily get assassinated, as Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America and there are enough people who would not mind killing someone for the fee of $200. One of the additional problems is that many, not all, in the police in army and very corrupt and receive bribes. Furthermore, some senior people in the police probably work behind the scenes with drug-lords and therefore while the lower level drug dealers may be arrested, the drug dons are usually not. Now, one would assume that one of the responsibilities of a truly socialist government is to restore law and order in the country as soon as possible. What is the value of socialism if one has to fear for his life on a regular basis and there is a constant sense of fear, distrust, and tension when one walks the main streets? One may counter-argue that I am a spoiled foreigner seeking a socialist fantasy while refusing to realize the difficulties of establishing socialism. I realize that it is up to Venezuelans themselves to decide what kind of system they want and how to pursue it. However, when there is massive violence in the streets and many in the government seem to be corrupt, while a sense of anarchy prevails and it seems that the government turns a blind eye to violence when it takes place by local bandits, preferring to continuously blame outsiders, then there is indeed a source for concern.
Now, here is the catch. For the poor majority, life has improved since 2002. Many public housings are now provided to the poor. Public transportation is extremely cheap (about 3 bolivars, if I recall correctly). Various health clinics were created and many Cuban doctors arrived and provided along with Venezuelan doctors, sight-serving circuglical procedures (operacio milagro). Locals receive food stipends from the government, and therefore no one goes hungry. Education is now available freely for all, from the kindergarten to graduate school. All these are impressive achievements. And are also reasons why the poor majority is likely to vote again for the PSUV ruling party in December.
However, there are several issues that suggest that the government has been pursuing a populist line and is not practicing genuine socialism in earnest. First, while President Maduro can rightly blame the US and local oligarchy for an economic war against the country, the chaos due to the high inflation, speculation in food prices, and scarcity of basic goods is not just because of imperialism and the enemies from within, as it were. In several trips to supermarkets I noticed a large number of people, many of whom clearly appeared to not have children, who were waiting in line for the cashier with various baby products and other basic necessities in their hands. The large numbers indicated that either they had several babies or they had other purposes in mind. A local friend who supports socialism said that at least 50% have been abusing the system of subsidies provided by the government, purchasing a large number of needed goods and then selling them at inflated prices while everyone else was negatively affected as a result. This means that many basic goods are now unavailable or sold at very high prices. A responsible government would direct the blame at those who commit such crimes and seek to crack down on them, yet, to the best of my knowledge, the government does not tend to be blame poor and local criminals for anything while providing cheap subsidies due to its desire to get reelected, knowing full well that these are abused.
Indeed, this same phenomenon has been taking place in other areas. People sold apartments given to them by the government for their personal gain. Others sold subsidized tickets from Caracas to Havana at much higher prices and the $50 airline ticket that used to be the norm was taken out of service or its price is far higher. Others sell subsidized dollars given by the government at much higher prices.
Despite the fact that free education is available for all, some have decided to join gangs, and make their money via less than decent means. Various gangs operate in different parts of the city and a wide sense of lawlessness, fear and tension prevails. If this is socialism, than I want nothing to do with it. Furthermore, my time in Venezuela made me realize that the handing over of free goods to the poor is not enough to create a better society. In fact, such actions in a vacuum will result in mayhem. My time in Venezuela made me realize that most people will abuse socialism when it is given to them freely after they did not fight for it. So, either people need to be educated forcefully from a young age on how to behave in a respectful manner, conscious of others, and those who side-step are punished severely as in Cuba, both actions which the anti-authoritarian international left has refrained from encouraging, or the pursue of socialism alone as the solution is inherently flawed. What is necessary is an internal and spiritual transformation, which will make people act in a less selfish way, since changing the external system only is blind-faith in humanism and in the ability of people to act morally and generously once external restrictions are removed while in fact it is very likely that mayhem, violence and abuses will result once restrictions are removed. Human nature is deeply flawed, I realized, and therefore humanism appears to be blind faith in others as much as Christianity, Islam or Judaism are blind faith in God. One has to be more realistic, most people abuse things when they can, and therefore it is not enough to fight for justice, one has to also work on changing oneself and on educating people and perhaps even providing a spiritual path of some kind, which will inspire people to rise above their animalistic pursuits.
What was the broader picture at the time I was in Venezuela then? A collapsing economy,high inflation, high crime. Many poor are abusing the system. And instead of the government restoring law and order, purging the army and police of corruption, purging the government of opportunists, and providing safety to residents, the government preferred to blame the US and local oligarchs for all its ills while not taking strong and multidimensional measures to curb inflation, crack down on crime and prevent the abuse of the system by free-riders.
I am not exaggerating at the slightest. During my stay in Venezuela I went to visit a friend who lives outside the city. There, in a middle class and affluent neighborhood, he told me that in the past two weeks two of his neighbors were killed by gangs on two separate occasions. This is a neighborhood where senior people related to the government also live. A local woman told me that things are as worse now in Venezuela as they have been during her life time and that she does not remember a time when things were as bad.
Had the government been entirely composed of those dedicated to socialism, perhaps we would have seen a different reality. But estimates suggest that at least 50% of officials are opportunists who are motivated by personal gain. A friend told me of his own account on how an ambassador in a neighboring country to Venezuela was caught throwing away letters of solidarity sent by dedicated supporters from around the world.
The overall sense in Caracas was that of lack of law and order, chaos, anarchy, danger, collective fear and each one to himself. At the same time, impressive solidarity seemed to exist in the poorer barrios. While it seems to be the case that the Colombian and American intelligence agencies, and possibly the Israeli intelligence agency as well, is contributing to the chaos in Venezuela, the mute or gradual responses by Maduro suggests that he may be fearful of truly tackling the problems since he is concerned he may not become reelected.
This points to the limit of socialism and democratic elections. Can a leader pursue a policy that is good for the people in the long run (such as curbing pollution for the sake of halting global warming) while negative for people in the short run (such as providing fewer goods for consumption?). It seems quite logical than a leader who seeks to get elected every several years will have to engage in populism before the elections and will not pursue painful steps. Can socialism be enacted via parliamentary democracy? I am not convinced it can. In Cuba, it has been enacted following a revolution and a one party rule that is largely supported by the vast majority of the population. Yet in the case of Cuba, the government is leading from below, constantly responding to the needs of the people and is being widely straightforward with the people about the current problems, as Fidel has done over and over again, while the same has not taken place in other countries.
It is understandable however that Maduro stepped into very large shoes. Not only is it clear that he cannot match the charisma of Chavez, but he also is measured at every step he takes by higher standards. The sense of collective orphanage still prevails very deeply in Caracas as the wound created by Chavez’ early passing is far from healed. Pictures of Chavez are nearly everywhere, as are major posters, graffiti, signs, altars, statues and sayings. However, it seemed at times that the nostalgia for Chavez passed healthy limits. Chavez is not only loved but almost worshipped while the healthy distinction between the individuals forming the public and the leader has been blurred. At a magical dancing area in Circo Nuevo a major picture of Chavez was placed at the center while people were dancing around it in ecstasy.Of course, the dancers were probably thinking about the music or sex and not about Chavez but the scene was still a bit strange since Chavez was portrayed as a father figure which is the leader of all the people there although he has already passed on and there has been no one to take his place. This same state of spiritual and emotional orphanhood was familiar, since I grew up in a very religious environment in Jerusalem where a leader based in Brooklyn was upheld as a spiritual master while his followers had major trouble adjusting to life without him after his passing and engaged in various forms of reality denials.
Chavez’s larger than life figure adorns many locations, including the university. My impression was that people were enthralled by his leadership and actions, but do not know where to take it from there. Or perhaps that it was more about his charisma than a genuine dedication of the masses to the process of building socialism. One may argue that it is natural that Venezuelans will love Chavez. And indeed, I am not trying to coerce Venezuelans into accepting dry and cold-hearted Western rationality. But the constant revere towards Chavez along with the sense of being left orphaned can result in blind faith placed in the government, since a process with the gran comandante began, cannot possibly go wrong. This is dangerous thinking. My concern is, indeed, that many supporters of the government are at a point of practicing blind faith in an incompetent government while burying their heads in the sand and when reality will hit, it will hit badly, while of course the Left will be in ruins and the country will face economic collapse, a civil war, anarchy or a take over by the US Empire.
I also had the same sense with the internationals who lived in Caracas and support Venezuela. They realize things are going down but continue to believe things will magically work out or perhaps they have invested so much emotionally in Venezuela that they cannot admit that it is time to leave. Or that it is too painful to realize how astray things have went. Furthermore, I also encountered some people, among the internationals, who were taking free-rides from others due to shortage of cash. Indeed, it is easy to play the higher moral ground when one is affluent but once one is desperate, one will do almost anything to get another cigarette or beer. This means that blind faith that humanity will always act maturely under socialism is quite misplaced and simply untrue.
At the same time, I do not want to paint a picture that the country is composed of blind followers. There are thousands of communes throughout Venezuela practicing socialism and communal values in earnest, far away from the limelight of the media. These communes, however, seem to be betrayed by large forces in the police, army and government. For example, while President Maduro meets on a regular basis with union leaders and manages to get them to support the government, the communes spread around the country do not have the same political clout and cannot practice pressure on the government at the same level.
A major criticism of Maduro would be then, that for one he is taking very few steps to truly restore law and order and impose harsh penalties on local violators and also that he gives the poor a free pass even when they abuse the system. He can fight both against US imperialism and corruption and misuse at home, there is no contradiction between the two.
When Maduro does act, as actions taken recently to uncover hoarded goods, seal the border with Colombia or take over areas run by drug-gangs, then he acts only on election year when he needs to get elected and not earlier on. This seems to me to be populism, and I say this as one who cares about the Venezuelan people.
As things were getting more and more difficult since I was nearly hit by a motorcycle and the sense of collective fear, anxiety, claustrophobia and mayhem was starting to get to me, I realized it was too dangerous for me to remain in Caracas and left Venezuela. This, despite the fact that I was hoping to conduct an interview with a senior union leader, speak to a local anarchist, visit communes in different parts of the country and review the police’s invasion of poor barrios and its clearing of gangs. I did manage however, to visit a poor area which was liberated from gangs and people seemed relieved by the action of the police while in Brazil such police raids usually result in the deaths of locals and the police occupies the area and ‘pacifies’ it, rather than ‘liberates’ the people which the name of the Venezuelan operation, Liberacion del Pueblo, suggests is its goal.
It was not easy to leave the airport, as the staff was very disorganized and one has to be there hours and hours in advance. I was lucky to have made it out. I met many amazing Venezuelans and Caracas has an amazing party scene despite or perhaps because of the ongoing crisis, but my general sense was and I say this in great sadness, not in triumph, that the country is going down.