There are fewer things there to like now than a decade or more before, but even now there are some.
The past several days in Venezuela, marginally covered by the “legitimate” media in the United States, were highly disturbing. My wife, Jeanie, and I retain pleasant memories from when we were there off and on between 1996 and 2001, frequently for months at a time.
In general Venezuela was prosperous, food (most of it locally grown or raised) and other necessities were plentiful as well as inexpensive and, with rare exceptions, the people we met seemed happy. Caracas, for a large city, was pleasant. The then new and modern subway system rivaled the Washington Metro. It was inexpensive and widely used; we used it whenever possible. Violent crime there was rare, although a skillful pickpocket once got the better of me as we descended an escalator to the subway platform. The city bus system was also excellent. With generally comfortable air conditioned vehicles, it was the best available alternative to the subway. The regional bus system was also quite good, with air conditioning, “in flight” movies and bathroom facilities. There were also attendants who served refreshments and, when approaching the terminal, directed passengers to return their seats and tables to their upright and locked positions; I am not joking.
We often walked through commercial area of Caracas and had little concern about violence. In the sole instance we saw, someone tried to rob a man in a wheelchair. Strangers rushed to his assistance, made the robber stop and, as I recall, detained him to turn over to the police. Jeanie once left her ATM card in the slot at an ATM machine. We were moderately concerned when a man came running after us, but were delighted when he handed Jeanie her ATM card. As in Washington, D.C., New York City and many other U.S. cities, there were places in Caracas where it was not safe to go. We avoided those, as we customarily did (and still do) elsewhere.
Puerto Cabello, often referred to in my blog as Puerto la Grunge, was a dirty port city, home of the Venezuelan naval base where Venezuelan ships were repaired. Quite unwisely as we later discovered, we made a big mistake having work done there on our sailboat. It was later necessary to have everything done by base personnel torn out and replaced in Cartagena, Colombia, where the work was excellent and even less expensive. With one minor exception, who was eventually fired, the base personnel from the commanding officer down to privates and civilian employees were pleasant, tried to make us feel welcome and seemed to have done as well for our boat as their limited abilities permitted.
The people we encountered in Puerto Cabello were almost without exception protective of and pleasant to us. The city had a high rate of crime, violent and otherwise. Invariably, when either of us went into town to shop someone would approach and warn that it was a dangerous place and to be cautious. Places where unusually high danger might await us were pointed out. Jeanie, an experienced world traveler well before we had met, has a high level of situational awareness. A few times, when walking on the sidewalk, she noticed someone across the street paralleling her. If she went into a store, he would lurk on the opposite side of the street until she resumed her walk and and then continue to follow. Eventually, she would point a finger, stare at him and say in Spanish, “I see you!” He would stop following her.
We were in Puerto Cabello on September 11, 2001. Jeanie (fluent in Spanish) had gone with some newly arrived cruisers to the Port Captain’s office to translate and help them with paperwork. Just as they were leaving, the Port Captain ran after her yelling excitedly for her to return to his office: an airplane crashing into a World Trade Center building was being shown on his television set. I was on our boat, oblivious to what was happening. Jeanie radioed me with the news, and I watched it on our TV via CNN International and listened to the English language audio from the Armed Services Network on our shortwave radio.
The next day while we were walking in Puerto Cabello many locals approached us, some with tears in their eyes. They came to express surprise about the 9-11 attacks and to offer sympathy to us, obviously Gringos.
Merida, a university city up in the mountains, was essentially the cultural capitol of the nation. We attended a symphony concert there, presented with a guest conductor from Germany and a guest artist from the Julliard school of music in New York City. The cost of admission was roughly twenty five cents in U.S. currency. The auditorium was full, mainly of students and locals.
Hugo Chávez (28 July 1954 – 5 March 2013) became the President of Venezuela in 1999. At first, he moved slowly radically to transform the nation and then, as he gained in power and popularity, accelerated the pace. I would not recognize much of Venezuela were I to return now; I have no intention of doing that.
The events of the past week were distressing, if for no reason beyond their confirmation that the nation is very different, and far worse, than I remember it. Quasi official murders continue. Even so, the events were not all bad, to the extent that they offer at least a hint that eradication of Chavismo and the evils it has produced may be possible.
As noted above, not many years ago Venezuela was a far more pleasant place –and not only for oligarchs — than she has become. Although it seems that most of the recent protesters were young, and their apparent leader Sr. Lopez is also young, many older people remember what the nation was like a decade or so before.
Unlike Iran and other places in turmoil — as well as others not yet in turmoil such as North Korea — most of the people of Venezuela have known far better times. And, despite the human rights violations in Venezuela, arrests, torture and murders of dissidents have been few in comparison to those in North Korea and Iran. Although Venezuela now has an historically high rate of violent crime, Venezuelans do not go about murdering their fellows based on differing interpretations of religion. In Iran under Islamic law, there are reported to have been six hundred and fifty-two official hangings in 2013. 2014 has begun to show an increase. Death by hanging there comes more slowly, and more painfully, than through hanging by other means
Never in recent memory did the people of Iran or North Korea enjoy the freedom and relative prosperity enjoyed by Venezuelans pre-Chávez. The situation in Iran has worsened in recent years, perhaps to a greater extent than in Venezuela. Although regime change of a beneficial nature is needed in all three nations, it may well be less difficult in Venezuela than in Iran or North Korea, if for no better reason than that the people of Venezuela remember better times. Few in Iran or North Korea do.