A Beyond Chron Exclusive: Chavez’s Venezuela, Where Gas is Cheaper than Water

by Eli Rosenberg on January 30, 2006

(Ed note: While most of our focus is on the San Francisco Bay Area, we know that many readers are deeply interested in the political changes sweeping Latin America, particularly Venezuela. We are therefore thrilled to be able to provide exclusive dispatches from Eli Rosenberg, a former UCLA Daily Bruin reporter who is now spending the semester in Venezuela. His first column is below).

Venezuela is a land of contradictions. Copiously rich and unbearably poor, technologically advanced yet rural and rustic, consumerist yet without the economic freedom to uselessly consume, inefficient and loosely organized yet economically driven, Venezuela feels like a country hanging somewhere between the first and third worlds. I live in a city called Merida in the Andes which has a sizeable academic community and I know a decent amount of students at ULA, an important university in Venezuela, already. Some of my professors have done international work relating to petroleum, economics and globalization. I spent hours talking the other day to the older brother of one of my professors, Daniel Urbina and supposedly he was one of Chavez’s right hand men, and allegedly worked with other presidents here. He told me story after story about coups, assassinations, plots, guerillas, the future of the country and the future of the world.

The country feels like it is in a perpetual state of chaos; buses run late or don’t show up at all, red lights are merely a recommendation, during the day the streets swarm with people walking in front of moving cars as if they could swat them away like mosquitoes.

El petreleo, gasoline, is much cheaper here than water, and works out to about 15 or 20 cents a gallon. Here they have professionals, doctors, lawyers, many people go on to get college degrees, but many people with college degrees cannot find adequate work and are forced to settle for low income jobs. The minimun wage here works out to be about 8 dollars a day, which is more than enough to subside on, but numerous people in rural and urban areas can’t find a job at all.

Tucked in valley that is cradled by the Andes which loom immense on all sides, Merida, where I live, feels somewhat isolated and self-contained. From what I hear there is a distinctly different and unique culture in the Andes that differs from the rest of the country, there certainly appears to be more a rustic and rural vibe here and less African influence compared to the coastal regions.

While an undercurrent of political tension pervades the city, politics are a sensitive subject, and the country feels divided and polarized. Depending on whom you talk to, Chávez is either the messiah or the devil, there is little middle ground except in academic circles.

Political graffiti covers the city, MVR (movimiento quinto republico- movement of the fifth republic) posters plaster walls of buildings; spray paint shouts Viva Chavez! on the large white walls surrounding upscale suburban neighborhoods, that topped with large shards of broken glass plastered on top, form an intimidating warning to any intruder. Other government murals depicting Chavez, Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar and Jose Martí that declare loudly el rumbo al socialismo have large splashes of white paint covering the faces of both Chávez and Che.

Whether you love or hate him, most would agree that Chavez is a phenomenon, for better or worse. What has also been interesting has been that the majority of what has been presented in the media in the US has been incredibly oversimplified.

There is a complex debate here that is never presented in the US, i still feel like i am in no position to have an educated opinion yet. The media makes out the Chavez opposition to be entirely composed of the small minority that represents the economically elite in Venezuela, the lavishly rich, predominantly white, benefactors of oil-wealth. On a simple level this may be true, it’s no secret that Chavez’s base is in the poor, but there is a debate here and its not as simple as the wealthy not wanting their wealth taken away.

The family I live with is by no means wealthy by American standards; they live modestly by all means and while they are clearly well-off in Venezuelan society are not elitist or selfish in any way. They do however extremely dislike Chavez, and I respect their opinion ; these are middle class people, working as doctors, accountants, computer programmers, men and women alike, college educated and by no means overtly privileged or excessively rich.

Many academics who I’ve talked to respect Chavez’s ideals and dedication to helping the poor and trying to create solidarity away from the US, but at the same time believe much that he has done has been hasty and ill-conceived. The older brother of the family I live with works and lives near Caracas, and told me that after every election there is a list distributed locally to managers and owners that says which employees voted and who they voted for, and he told me this goes on country wide. Those who voted anti-Chavez risk getting fired in certain circles.

These observations have come from talking to the people here, the family I live with and my professors. I’ll have more insights based on my own experiences in the weeks ahead.

Send feedback, as well as ideas for subjects you would like Eli to address, to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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