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The travel books, if they mention it at all, will tell you to stay away from Maracaibo. Venezuela’s second largest city is “dangerous,” “crime-ridden,” and “lawless.” It has also been described as “an environmental disaster area,” “disease-infested” and, of course, “infernally hot.” This is a town with a Surgeon General’s warning. One of the more optimistic reviews put it this way: “Maracaibo has absolutely no must-see attractions.” (1)
“Lawless” is certainly fair. This is the wild west; where everyone carries a pistol and where carjacking is such a formal industry that local merchants sell vacunas or “vaccinations”—for a thirty-dollar window sticker (the money somehow makes its way back to the mob) the carjackers will, like the angel of death at a blood-soaked doorway, pass you and your car over…for a month.
You can do whatever you want in Maracaibo, no one will stop you. Sell pirated DVDs from your front porch, drive as soon as your feet reach the pedals, throw McDonalds bags out your car window at high speeds, cut into queues (honestly, there really aren’t any queues, just mobs; only fools and foreigners wait their turn) and in Maracaibo, as a general rule, if it isn’t bolted down, it’s yours.
I landed here for the first time, mullet-haired and pimple-faced, in 1988 as a high school exchange student. It was all a big mistake really. I was too naïve/trusting/stupid to specify a country of preference on my application and instead wrote, “Spanish-speaking.” What a relief I must have been for the main office—“Ha! Finally, a kid we can send to Maracaibo.”
I soon learned that Maracaibo, with its 2.1 million residents, was home to Venezuela’s infamous redneck population. I had landed in Hazard County, Venezuela. Maracuchos, as they are known, have a reputation for being so ill-mannered, so vulgar and rude, that all over Venezuela they are summarily turned away from hotels and restaurants simply because of their zip code. They all cuss (and I mean all of them—toddlers to grandmas) like sailors, and in a marvel of modern linguistics have managed to make the word “cock” (verga) fit every part of speech, far eclipsing the ubiquity of “fuck” in English. Let’s take a look. In a greeting: “How’s the verga?” As an adverb of quantity: “That rally contained a verguero of people!” (a lot or a “cock-load”). As a noun in an (un)conditional: Q: “Are you going to the ballet?” A: “Not even with the verga!” (no way). As an indefinite noun: “Could you pass me that verga?” As an interjection: “Vergación!” (Wow!). Etcetera.
I say that Maracuchos cuss like sailors not because it is an easy cliché, but because it is literally true. Dating back to Spanish colonialism, Maracaibo, which sits on the Caribbean near the eastern border of Colombia, has always been a port city and, thus, has absorbed races and cultures from all over the world. Nowhere is this sailors’ legacy (and the sailors’ disdain for convention and etiquette) more apparent than in the naming of children. Venezuelan parents are already famous for bestowing bizarre names on defenseless offspring, often of historic figures (Mao, Nixon, Elvis), but in Maracaibo anything goes. Creating acronyms from the parents’ names is common (Yoma, for example, was begat by Yolanda Ortiz and Marco Alvarez); some names, while good, are too ordinary for Maracuchos so they reverse the spelling, as in the case of my host-sister-in-law whose name is Legna, Angel spelled backward (this one actually “back”fired since her friends, to this day, tease her that she is the anti-Christ); Greco-roman figures are favorites, too (Socrates and Plato), and in a salute to all things maritime, the names of ships are always popular; hence, Usnavy is now a common name for little girls (makes you wonder where daddy was from, doesn’t it?).
As a newborn my mother would take me to different crack houses when she needed a fix. When I was six months old she abandoned me in the basement of one of those houses. My aunt and uncle eventually found me. As my aunt tells it, I was crying inconsolably, my face red and sore. It was a cold day and I was only wearing a diaper. She wrapped me in a t-shirt, and I finally settled down. Later, when she went to change me, she found drug vials in my diaper.
After that I lived with my paternal grandparents in a row house on North Avenue, an area famous for drugs and violence.
Sixteen people lived in the house. Three generations. There were my grandparents George and Gloria Mayo. Their sons: George, Riccas, and my dad—Alphonso, Sr. Their daughters: Teresa, Darlene, and Lolita. Then my cousins India, Andre, Tasha, Teila, Demetrius, Solita, James, and me. People slept in every room except the kitchen.
Did I mention it’s hot here? Sitting right at sea-level next to South America’s biggest lake (the aforementioned environmental disaster), Maracaibo is one of the most uncomfortable places on earth. Citing the average temperature (in the 90s) doesn’t quite do it justice since it is the humidity that makes it so unbearable. How humid? It’s that perpetually sweating, never completely dry, fungus-sprouting-in-every-adjoining-body-part humid. Drying yourself after a shower is an exercise in futility because you are eventually just wiping away sweat. I survived only through the grace of air conditioning and by coating half my body in talcum powder.
The combination of heat, humidity, and poor sanitation make Maracaibo the perfect incubator for tropical diseases, a paradise for germs. I know this not because the travel books warned me (they didn’t) but because many, if not all, of these diseases have been kind enough to take up residence in my overly pampered first-world body.
In a six-week period in 2003 I was host to the following Maracucho maladies: a pectoral fungus (how careless of me not to put talcum powder there), scabies (that wonderful ailment that necessitates burning half your wardrobe and boiling your underwear), a prostate infection (I’ll spare you further details), and intestinal amoebas (between trips to the bathroom I would devour obscene quantities of refined sugar—chocolate, bonbons, coke, anything—because, as you may know, one’s diet gets a bit quirky when you are eating for a million).
But c’est la vie; I’m sure I am better for it. Not only has my Spanish vocabulary improved enormously (phrases like, “I need a Petri dish for my fecal sample,” are now second nature), but if it is really true that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, then I must have a preternaturally primed immune system. In fact, I fancy that when the next big one hits—whether it is a killer comet like in Armageddon, or an eco-apocalypse like The Day After Tomorrow, or a new (Monsanto-made) disease á la 12 Monkeys—it won’t be Ben Affleck and Brad Pitt and Dennis Quaid who survive. No, it will be the cockroaches and the Maracuchos (and yours truly). We will be the ones (you’ll know my offspring by the blond hair) who will carry on the human experiment after you and your wussy, need-a-flu-shot-every-six-months immune system are gone.
Now I have to tell you about one of history’s great moments and the culminating moment in Maracaibo’s past. Even a hundred years ago Maracuchos already had their infamous reputation, and other Venezuelans—particularly the more aristocratic Caraqueños (residents of the capital Caracas)—already looked down their noses at the backward Maracuchos in their forgotten, mosquito-infested little town. Then on the seemingly ordinary morning of December 14, 1922 something very extraordinary happened. From across Lake Maracaibo there came a deafening howl from deep within the earth, “a roar that froze the blood,” and Barrosa oil well Number Two erupted as if the very skin of the earth had been punctured.(2) It blew for ten days straight, spewing over 840,000 barrels of oil 200 feet into the air and inundating the surrounding jungle. The villagers were up to their knees in the stuff, and The New York Times declared it “the most productive [well] in the world.” (3) Literally overnight, Maracaibo became an oil boomtown with twice as many brothels as churches (which probably wasn’t much of an increase, really) and Venezuela became a major player in the global energy game. Today it ranks sixth in the world in proven reserves, higher than any country outside the Middle East.(4)
Suddenly Maracuchos were Venezuela’s Beverly Hillbillies. The place was flooded with businessmen and oil workers from around the world and Maracuchos—who had basically been living in 18th century conditions thanks to caudillo warfare and disease—found themselves in a bustling 20th century city. Yet even after the discovery of oil, Maracaibo remained oddly isolated. There were still no roads connecting Maracaibo to Caracas—or any other city for that matter—and for a long time, the trip to Caracas required a visa, since the three day boat ride made a stop at the Dutch island of Curacao.(5) So Maracaibo, with its back to the Colombian jungle and its face to the lake, continued to grow as it had in colonial days: through its port. It was not until the 1960s that the largest concrete bridge in the world was built connecting Maracaibo with the rest of the country. But by then it was too late. Maracuchos were a breed apart, and—they were quick to add—a better breed. They had their own music, Gaita; their own Creole cooking; their own sport, baseball, which is now the national sport thanks to North American oilmen; and of course their expletive-filled vernacular that used the antiquated vosotros tense and dropped the ‘d’ on all past participles.
But it was not just oil that fueled the Maracuchos’ faith in their superiority. Zulia (the state in which Maracaibo resides) also turned out to be the nation’s breadbasket. Today, between hydrocarbons and agriculture, the state produces over sixty percent of the country’s GDP, yet its population is only 13 percent of Venezuela’s total of 25 million.(6) If it is hard get your mind around it, imagine if the U.S.’s only export was oil and that one state (say Texas) produced two-thirds of it AND that same state generated most of the sugar, poultry, beef, and milk that the country consumed, AND that this state had evolved in cultural isolation from the other lower 47 until the 1960s. (7) Now shrink that mighty mighty Texas to one fifteenth its size and that, that ultra-concentrated little state would be Zulia, and their residents would be Zulianos and Maracuchos, Texans with ten times the ego and one tenth the subtlety. And you thought Dallas was bad.
The only problem is that, unfortunately for the Maracuchos and Zulianos, little of this tremendous wealth is ever seen in their home state. Venezuela’s centralized economy means that all oil revenues go straight to Caracas and never come back. While corrupt politicians spend lavishly on wasteful projects and fill their foreign bank accounts, Zulia and Maracaibo are left neglected. One can easily imagine how the Maracuchos feel about this. Which brings us to another similarity they share with their North American simulacrum. Maracuchos would be perfectly happy seceding from the union, which, in fact, they have petitioned to do several times.
In 1989 it appeared in a local paper that Venezuela had the highest number of car accidents in the world, per capita. Surprise surprise, Maracaibo, where traffic lights are optional, has the most car accidents within Venezuela. Now, in Maracaibo there is a famous street, 72nd Street, notorious for being the most perilous street in town—this is where teenagers simultaneously cruise and drag race on weekend nights. Following this irrefutable deductive reasoning, 72nd Street was immediately (and quite proudly) christened the most dangerous street in the world, a fact that may very well be true. (Who said this place had no must-see attractions?) My friend Alvaro lives on 73rd Street and on weekend nights in high school we would sit on his patio and listen to the revving engines, window-vibrating bass, and the honking horns that came from the next block. Every now and then we would hear a sudden screeching of tires and would turn our heads in anticipation, waiting for the promised clap of metal on metal and the sudden wailing of a car alarm. We were rarely disappointed.
How bad is it? I was in three car accidents in my first 11 months in Maracaibo, (luckily none of them serious) and collisions are so common that insurance companies will not cover an accident that occurs in an intersection. (What the $#^%!) Words fail me.
It isn’t only how they drive, it’s what they drive: In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s it looked like Venezuela was about to break out, about to become a little Saudi Venezuela, a Qatar-like state awash in oil wealth, the kind of place where instead of paying taxes, the government rewarded you with money every year. The world oil “crisis” of 1973 marked a massive boom for the country. Drowning in oil revenues and cheap loans, Venezuelans started buying imported cars like Imelda Marcos bought shoes. And with Venezuelan gasoline costing only pennies a gallon, they bought the biggest cars they could find, with hoods like king-sized beds and trunks like Jacuzzis. Of course, the boom didn’t last. Venezuela finished the decade with the highest per capita debt in Latin America and stuck in the same debt trap that plagues so much of the developing world—exporting their natural resources to finance debt instead of funding social programs.
But the cars remained. And with the end of the oil boom those cars had to last. To this day, the most common cars in Maracaibo are Dodge Darts and Ford Mavericks. And other big dinosaurs— Chargers, 440 Road Runners, and Impalas—still roam the highways. Some are in pristine condition, most are held together with coat hangers and Bondo.
I have discovered through my extensive ethnographic research that Maracuchos like to copulate with a certain leporine vigor. Yes, I must say, they probably like it more than you and I and, I hypothesize, even other Venezuelans. Unfortunately, most of this sex is not the steamy, Lambada-like concupiscence you’d expect. It is actually hard to imagine, literally… mechanically. It is toy poodle, Saint Bernard sex. The typical Maracucha (female) is Wile E. Coyote-drooling-over-the-roadrunner gorgeous. (Venezuela, you might know, has had more Ms. Universe winners than any other country—many of them from Maracaibo.) But the Maracuchos (males)…well, they are a different story. More often than not they are extremely fat, corpulent beings who have been overstuffed by their doting mommies with too much pabellón—the quintessential dish of shredded beef, rice, and fried plantain. In addition to this endomorph meets ectomorph mating convention, there is usually a big (and when I say big, I mean Nabakovian) age difference between papi and the mamacita.
I present the following case study: Once, early on, I was invited to el Club Nautico, Maracaibo’s famous (and only) yacht club. Having spent most of my time with my middle and lower class friends and host family, I was anxious to get a good look at the uppers, los sifrinos as they are known, the snobs. Picture the scene: it is Friday night in the most exclusive nightclub in town. The place is full of beautiful nymphets, and hulking middle-aged men. My first thought was, ah, it must be “bring your daughter night,” wait, did you see the way that man just kissed his daughter? What can I say, I was naïve. I was also shocked, repulsed. Just watching the couples make out on the dance floor made me queasy. This can’t be love, I thought, it’s economic opportunism, a way for women to gain power in a macho society. But I came to understand that this phenomena did not occur just among the elites. Yes, while it is more socially acceptable to “marry up” in Venezuela, the accepted age standards have been dramatically widened among all classes. Men in their forties often marry girls in their teens—my friend Alvaro’s mom was married to his father (a doctor…a gynecologist in fact) when she was fourteen (she was also from a prominent family).
I suspect a big reason for this is Venezuela’s beauty queen culture. Femininity in Venezuela embraces, without question, the idea that a woman’s power comes from her beauty. And Venezuelan beauty means sexuality. I suppose that the stereotype of the hyper-sexual Latina was born here because in all of Latin America—and I can personally speak for Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Argentina—I have never seen anything like it. From the girls in their dental-floss bikinis to the semi-pornographic cerveza commercials, the objectification of women as sexual objects is everywhere, constantly reinforcing the cultural definition of beauty. Sound familiar?
Accordingly, there is a major emphasis on clothes, fashion and make-up. Then there is etiquette. I sometimes suspect that there is a secret school in the Andes that all Venezuelan girls attend because they have all mastered a very complicated system of feminine mannerisms and protocols. They know just how to be women—when to touch your arm during a casual conversation, how to double wrap your whiskey in napkins so it doesn’t chill your fingertips(!!!), and, at the appearance of a camera, how to instantly strike a pose. This secret training, I know, starts very young. Once I asked my host-niece if she wanted to go to the corner for an ice-cream. She threw up her hands in exasperation. “Por favor, tio Brian. You know that I can’t go out looking like this. Just look at my hair. You have to give me at least a half an hour to get ready.” She is five.
Now we have come to the part where I am supposed to tell you that despite certain socio-economic-political-environmental-medicinal-sexual-penal problems, Maracuchos, and, by extension, Venezuelans, are really wonderful people—generous, outgoing, selfless, and they will open their hearts to you.
But I can’t say that. Just as you don’t make such sweeping generalizations about your own culture—“Oh, Americans are such generous people!”—I don’t make them about my adopted country folk. Of course, I am very attached to the people here (the real reason I keep coming back year after year) and I have a profound relationship with my host family who adopted me (and my ego), gave me 10 brothers and sisters, and have never stopped caring for me. However, Venezuela is a basket case of a country, a country whose every indices of health have been deteriorating since the late ‘70s; a country that even now, with the price of oil so high, is still sinking lower and lower. I have watched this steady decay for close to two decades now; I have watched this country—which once seemed so close to first-world prosperity—sink deeper and deeper into unremitting recession. On every visit, people say to me that it shouldn’t, it can’t, get any worse and every year it does. And that is why I am writing this… because, humor aside, I want you to see what I have seen: the tragedy of a society’s collapse.
Crime is perhaps the most important indicator of this social decay. In 1988 the scariest thing that happened to me was when the police picked me up, cleaned out my wallet, and drove me home. (To collect and serve.) Now Venezuela is one of the most dangerous places in the world, and I get guns waved in my face over the slightest things, like fighting over a parking space at the grocery. The country now has more kidnappings than Colombia and has had a 67 percent increase in homicides since 1999 (it wasn’t exactly Mayberry before).(8) In Caracas—the 9th level of crime purgatory—the inner city hospitals have become little more than war hospitals. One such hospital I visited received over 100 gunshot victims a week on average and seventy five percent of the broken bones were caused by bullets.(9) I know a lot of people in Venezuela, probably close to a thousand, and I don’t know a single family that hasn’t been the victim of a violent crime—whether it be kidnapping, carjackings, muggings, or rape. In 1997 my host-brother Marco escaped death only because a carjacker’s gun jammed when he tried to execute him. As cars with blood-soaked headrests flow West out of Maracaibo into Colombia, drugs flow in. Helped by Chávez’s assistance to Colombian guerilla groups, Venezuela has become the principal corridor for drugs leaving Colombia. (10)
To give you an indication of people’s desperation, one day Alvaro and I caught a teenager stealing the copper gas line that led into his neighbor’s house. We heard the hiss from the cut line and found the young man with the piping slung over his shoulder like a brown garden hose hopping over the neighbor’s wall. He then led us on a mile-long footrace (actually, just me, since Alvaro doesn’t believe in cardiovascular exercise and was begging for oxygen after the first block). I don’t think the kid had eaten in several days, which is probably why I eventually caught him. People in cars had seen the chase and a small mob formed around us—some wanted me to turn him over to the police, others wanted to beat him. It was an odd moment: privileged North American enforcing Venezuelan law. I knew that the copper piping was worth no more than six dollars at a scrap yard and I considered just letting him take it, yet despite my empathy for him (and probably more importantly, my understanding of the economic policies that drive Venezuela’s poverty) I couldn’t reward him for stealing. I took back the piping and let him go.
How is it that the world’s fifth largest oil exporter has come to this? How is it that 70 percent of its population lives in ranchos—the slums and shantytowns? How is it that the streets here are not paved with gold?
Who is to blame for all this? At the root of Venezuela’s woes is its class conflict, the gap between rich and poor. You have probably heard that in Latin America a small elite controls all the wealth. While this stereotype doesn’t exactly fit Venezuela, it is a good place for us to begin, as it is the very stereotype that fuels Chávez’s populism. (Venezuela escaped having the same intense caste system as most of Latin America because it was not important to the Spanish crown. There was nothing to exploit here…yet.)
Still, there is an elite class, the “oligarchs” as they are called, and they are a fascinating breed. There is no way to describe them that won’t sound like hyperbole, so you will just have to trust me. In short, all of the most outrageous stereotypes of the rich will be found among them. The yapping lap dogs; wives forged into Barbie dolls with plastic surgery; spoiled kids who attend bi- and trilingual schools, drive Land Cruisers, and converse in English and French at the mall while they look down their noses at the hoi-polloi. They are perceived (usually correctly) as infinitely shallow and materialistic. They are a leisure class: A group whose primary function is the consumption and display of wealth. (This is who Thorstein Veblen was talking about.) In a country that has so much poverty, it is hard to believe that such a class could exist, but there they are. They are out to advertise; for invidious display. Perhaps due to the oil culture, they behave like new money—they show it off—even when they are old money. Of course, this only aggravates class tensions because they are always sticking it in everyone else’s nose. “I have 7 series, nah-nah-na-na-nah.”
Although Maracaibo has its share, Caracas is where you find the greatest concentration of oligarchs, they live in the posh neighborhoods of Chula Vista, Altamira, and Country Club (not translated) behind ten-foot walls topped with razor wire guarded by men with sawed-off shotguns. From here the oligarchs sortie into the adjoining affluent shopping districts completely insulated from greater Venezuela. Most have never ridden the Metro, nor, heaven forbid, a bus. And that is the strongest feeling you get from the oligarchs: that they don’t see! That they live in some alternate, Bizarro universe where they are blind to the sprawling poverty that is all around and incapable of even considering that they might play a role in it. Sometimes, in my moments of frustration, I myself hope that mi comandante (Chávez) will round them all up and ship them to worker’s communes.
Of course, it is more complicated than that, and my description is a simplification. Many of the oligarchs are very active in social programs and have a profound patriotism for Venezuela. They are business people who fund schools in poor neighborhoods; doctors who go into the shantytowns and give free care; and attorneys who dedicate themselves to public service. Yet, what is important here is not the truth, but the stereotype—the widespread perception of the selfish oligarch who has gotten fat on Venezuela’s oil and neglected the poor. Oh, how easy it is to blame the country’s woes on them! They have made Chávez’s job so simple; they are the perfect scapegoat and have given him all the rope he needs to hang them with.
What’s more, the problem is not just the existence of the oligarchs, but the way that they influence the rest of the culture; the way the dwindling middle class and the lower class try to emulate them, idolize them. They are the goal: the Venezuelan Dream. Oh, to live in a penthouse in a gated community and shop in the nicest malls and vacation to Disney and have my nails done and get a new Xbox for junior and buy and buy and buy as only new (oil) money can buy. How did this become Venezuela’s ideal? Let me give you a quick primer on Venezuelan politics and the answer should become clear.
Now we won’t invite Jimmy Carter and, even though it is completely unprecedented, we will assume there is no corruption. Repeat the following: “I [insert your name] will turn Venezuela’s oil wealth into riches for all Venezuelans, including you [point finger]. I will SOW THE OIL so that you can fly to Miami to shop. The government of [insert existing president’s name] is corrupt. He [it’s always a “he”] is stealing the oil money for himself and his cronies.”
That’s it! Just say it over and over again and spend a little bit more money than your competitor and you’ll win. Decade after decade—for almost a century now—Venezuelans have fallen for this. (And why shouldn’t they? They are sitting atop the biggest fountain of wealth outside of the Middle-East.) Venezuelan culture is driven by this fantasy, by the hope that someday through hydrocarbon magic, and through little toil on their part, everyone will become as rich as Donald Trump and Paris Hilton. (By the way, Chávez and his bolivarianos are in no way immune to the dream. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the president and his quasi-socialist comrades are the nouveau riche, the new oligarchy [four legs good, two legs bad better].(11) Chávez’s mother, Elena, who raised her six boys in a shack with a dirt floor, now appears in papers with Coqui, her poodle, wearing designer clothes and a cumbersome amount of gold jewelry.(12) Oh, yes, now it is the former guerilla fighters who drive SUVs, get boob jobs, and look down their noses at the proletariat in the shantytowns.)
And what of those shantytowns? What of those helpless masses, who have been cheated by the oligarchs and corrupt politicians and must live in so much filth and squalor?
On your next visit to Venezuela stop and take a close look at the shantytowns. Remember this is where an estimated 70 percent of Venezuelans live. You will immediately notice some odd things. Many of these cheap brick homes are two and three stories high, painted and well taken care of. They are also well lit thanks to free (pirated) electricity—paid for by the legit customers. And what’s that? Yes, the rooftops are dotted with DirecTV dishes, about one every sixth house. (Unlike electricity, this cannot be stolen, although one dish can be shared with three of your neighbors.) (13) While there are few phone lines, most people have cell phones and if you walk through the shantytowns you will likely hear as many ring tones as you would on a college campus between classes. Like all Venezuelans, shantytown residents enjoy free education through college. Fifty-six percent of Venezuelans have a bachelor’s degree, which is more than twice the U.S. figure of 27 percent. And even before Chávez’s Cuban-led literacy programs, Venezuela had a 93 percent literacy rate, one of the best in Latin America. Venezuelans also get (albeit quite substandard) free healthcare. So what you have is perhaps the best educated, best connected, best electrified, moderately well medicated poor in the world with attorneys, engineers and nurses living among them.
Why do they live in this squalor? First, I hope I have shown that it is not always squalor. While there certainly is abject poverty in Venezuela and it is getting worse, the 70-80 percent poverty rate often cited in the media is deceptive because within the shantytowns there is a broad social stratification with business professionals on one end and the unemployed and destitute at the other. Second, like their oligarch counterparts, the poor believe in the fantasy of easy oil wealth; they believe—because the oil in the ground legally belongs to all Venezuelans—that they have the right to suckle from the teat of the state. Are they lazy? Yes, in a way, but mostly because the successive governments of Venezuela have created a system where the shantytowns are the best and logical choice for millions. In addition to the aforementioned social programs (that Chávez acts like he invented) the government has also subsidized building materials for the ranchos, encourages squatters, and subsidizes food staples—milk, rice, beans, sugar, meat—which makes it surprisingly easy to live, quite literally, on a couple of dollars a day.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that the shantytowns are not a new phenomena. The Venezuelan government has tried various initiatives over the last forty years to move shantytowners to proper housing, but with no luck. When offered subsidized housing, most Venezuelans will say thanks but no thanks. Living with no rent and no utilities is much better than being on the grid and paying more, even if it means more security. Hence, Venezuelans use their college-level reasoning skills to conclude that free is better than cheap. I know of one business owner in Zulia who already owned a house in town (on the grid), but then invaded some land with a group of squatters, built a new house there (off the grid) and now rents out his old house for extra money. So the “poor” remain in (or move into) the shantytowns and spend their money on DirecTV, cell phones, their pimped out Dodge Darts, and trips to the beach. They are waiting, biding their time until the next oil boom, when the state will have enough money to give them more. Oh, wait, we are in the midst of the biggest oil boom in history and still the country plunges down.
While we are talking about stereotypes, the most important stereotype of all is that Venezuela is a nation of adolescents. For boys, the stereotype holds that they are worshipped by their parents as incarnations of Jesus (the popular joke begins, how do you know that Jesus was Latino?). For girls the stereotype is that, because of the beauty queen culture, they are raised to be objects of idolatry and little else. As a result, neither sex ever truly grows up. In a way, I must admit that the stereotype has its kernel of truth but for a different reason: the bad parenting is not the fault of the biological parents, but rather the state, which has over many decades, given the poor (and continues to give them) just enough to keep them believing in the fantasy of easy wealth with little toil and—in the name of short-term political gain—has kept them from feeling any impetus to change and given them little opportunity to do so when they do.
Which leads us now to the hardest truth: that the fantasy of oil wealth, of the great oil-state that the politicians have foretold where everyone is fabulously rich, will never happen. That door has closed. Venezuela’s population is now too big and is growing too fast for this one commodity, as precious as it is, to support it. Without diversification of the economy, job creation, and a lot of hard work, Venezuela will continue to sink lower each year.
The real tragedy, however, is that the fantasy is too deep to exorcise. Venezuelans are still, to this day, so desperate to believe this Arthurian Legend, to believe that they will someday enjoy fabulous oil wealth, that they have finally surrendered their democracy in pursuit of the delusion, allowing Chávez to change and rechange the constitution, pack the Supreme Court and Election Council with his cronies, make laws by decree, place gag rules on the media, and otherwise systematically undermine Venezuela’s democratic institutions. All in the name of a fantasy that can never come true.
I admit that I had high hopes for Chávez at first. I’m a liberal democrat after all, and when he campaigned on the promise of revolutionizing Venezuela, I though, it’s about time. Unfortunately, Chávez is far worse than his predecessors and exponentially more corrupt because now graft is done in the name of the revolution—stealing land and oil company profits is done under the guise of redistributing wealth. Twenty-first century Robin Hoodism (emphasis on hood). All the money that Chávez injects into the streets—fish instead of fishing poles—cannot disguise the problems or build lasting change. While his government produces bogus statistics that laud his cultural transformation, the hard facts remain. Venezuela is a nation dependent on one very volatile commodity and the engine for reaping that harvest, the national oil company, is in trouble. In 2003 Chávez (illegally) fired half of the company’s employees—17,000 people—because they went on strike to oppose him. Concerned more with his political survival than long-term sustainability, Chávez has been churning and burning the company ever since to keep himself afloat. The result is that now, four years after the strike, ten thousand oil wells are shut down because of mismanagement, forcing Chávez to buy oil from Russia to meet contractual obligations.(14) What’s more, the country is still so burdened with debt, and the quality of Venezuelan oil so poor that oil has to remain above fifty dollars a barrel for there to be any net gain for the treasury. In short, the wide-held belief that Venezuela is once again awash in oil wealth is a myth. Economists warn that the Central Bank’s foreign reserves have already been spent—converted to local currency and earmarked for short-term spending.(15) Inflation is running at 18 percent and Chávez’s baffling price control system has run thousands of Venezuelan farmers out of business because they can’t make a profit: Supermarkets are full of imported liquor and cheese, but the only meat available is pork neck bones and rabbit.(16) Chávez’s recent move to nationalize other private companies like the phone company, CANTV, is not motivated by socialism, but by capitalism: he is running out of money.
As a student of Latin American history I have, for many years, excused this country’s fate as something beyond the control of most, if not all, Venezuelans; that the continuing social decay was the work of macroeconomic forces, oil prices, Structural Adjustment Programs, even meddling from the CIA and the State Department. Yet, the more I learn, the more I see that the history of Venezuela is not the history of its neighbors, not the history of coups and puppet governments, of flagrant economic imperialism and exploitation. There was no Pinochet here, no Batista, no Trujillo. The history of Venezuela is the history of Venezuelans cheating, defrauding, and robbing other Venezuelans and then trying to blame someone else for their crimes.
And so to conclude we return to Maracaibo, to Lake Maracaibo, to that 5,099 square miles of environmental disaster (about half the size Lake Erie), where oil contamination, careless dredging, and a Duck Weed infestation have killed most of its wildlife. In the ‘60s you could see dolphins playing in the lake, now it is not even safe for swimming and you take your life in your hands if you eat the fish. Chávez is quick to point his finger at the U.S. and Big Oil for the catastrophe, but the fact of the matter is that while there was certainly some pollution by the oil companies, it was not until after the industry was nationalized in 1975 and Big Oil was completely out of Venezuela that the preponderance of the damage was done. (It is also interesting to note that when the first oilmen arrived here in the 1910s, they commented on how polluted the lake was, before oil was even discovered.) Venezuelans, in the final analysis, have not taken care of their own house. Examples of this carelessness abound: Malaria was eradicated in this region in the 1930s by a massive humanitarian campaign led by, believe it or not, the company that is now Exxon Mobil; but now, because of lackadaisical prevention programs and mismanagement, malaria is back in pandemic proportions. As for Venezuela’s debt, while I understand the hardship a country faces when strapped with huge external debt, I experience compassion fatigue when I remind myself of the foolish way that Venezuela accumulated this debt, mostly in the early ‘70s, based on the asinine assumption that oil prices would stay at their all-time-high. So is the World Bank to blame? I know that their programs have proved disastrous in most of the developing world, but the only time Venezuela has experienced sustained economic growth since the ‘70s (that wasn’t just because of a spike in the price of oil) was during the early ‘90s under Carlos Andrés Pérez. While I am no fan of Pérez (he was impeached on corruption charges) the difficult economic package he implemented under World Bank guidelines showed more promise than any alternative before or since.
Sigh. Venezuela has some hard lessons to learn. In my darker moments, when I am frustrated, I want to throw up my hands and renounce my adopted citizenship. I tell myself that they are getting what they deserved; they have asked for this. But not the Maracuchos. To their credit, they were the first to see through Chávez’s ruse, to see that his is just a new twist on the same old corruption. They know the truth because, as they are quick to tell you, they are a cock-load smarter than everybody else.
4.U.S. Department of Energy, International Energy Annual 2003, (Washington, DC: DOE, 2004) <http://www.eia.doe.gov/iea/pet.html> (4 March 2006). I have removed Canada from the list of producers (sometimes listed second) because most of its proven reserves are made up of oil sands.
7.…two-thirds of all of it comes from Maracaibo. Dydynski, Krzysztof, Lonely Planet, Third edition, Melbourne, 2001. P. 233.
9.Author’s interview, Dr. Ricardo Serbenescu, Caracas, 18 July 2003.
12.Romero, Simon, “Expanding Power Puts Family of Venezuelan President Under Increasing Scrutiny,” The New York Times, 18 February, 2007.
15.Lakshmanan, Indira A.R. “Critics slam Venezuelan oil windfall spending.” The Boston Globe. 13 August 2006.