Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Christmas day

Merida, Venezuela (December 23, 2004)

In case you missed the beginning of this series, this is a travel diary of our trip to Venezuela in December 2004, with updated comments reflecting the current status of the country a decade later.

--- Originally published on December 25, 2004 ---

After coming back very late on Christmas night from la Finca, we slept until late in the morning. During the day we really didn't do much, apart going to a “communication center” of the local telephone company to call my parents at a low telephone rate, and visiting some friends of us living in Tabay (photo on the left). Tabay is one of the small villages along the roads to the Paramo.

Friends in Tabay
Tabay has an interesting story. As part of the “barrio adentro” program, the government offered to place one of the cuban doctors that are organizing basic health care centers for poor neighborhoods. This is a program done in collaboration with Cuba (which provides the expertise and the actual doctors for the program, to supplement the scarcity of venezuelan doctors available to practice for a very low salary in poor neighborhoods), in exchange for oil. The deal is that the government pays the small salary of the doctor, while the community provides the location to install the little hospital. Being the mayor of Tabay affiliated to an opposition party, the offer was refused, and the local community had to organize independently from the town officials to find a suitable place. As a result, in the last elections one month ago the incumbent mayor lost his office, and now the town is governed by the pro-government mayor that organized the community to keep their cuban doctors. The “barrio adentro” program of course can only provide basic health care, and cannot substitute the need of real hospital to cure serious illness, so have been criticized as a waste of money that should instead be used to fix the problems of the proper national health care system. The recipients of the “barrio adentro” program, apparently, do not think this way and are ready to go a long way to support the initiative (how barrio adentro is effectively improving the quality of life of poor people is one of the recurring themes in Mayli’s uncle description of his life as a priest in a poor Merida neighborhood). Of course having cuban doctor is not a long term solution, but the program is gradually training doctors and paramedics from the local communities, with the aim of having a program which is self-supporting in the future. The effects of this program on the lives of poor venezuelan is however something that tends to be hidden from the daily life of the rest of the country.

After dinner, we received the visit of one of Mayli’s cousins. He was happy because he is opening a new small commercial activity in Merida, and was assured cooperation from the city officials. He said that he got it because he always maintained an equal distance between the pro- and anti-government factions during the struggles of the last few years (his philosophy is that there is no point in swimming against the current). When he went to talk to the city pro-government officials, they checked that he didn’t sign for the recall referendum against the president (the list of these signatures is public), and then said that they will be very happy to make business with him.

The large photos above and below have nothing to do with this story. I didn't take many pictures in the last few days, though, so I decided to post some more image of Merida’s mountains, this one taken a couple of days ago while driving to Mayli’s cousin restaurant on the Valle de la Culata. Despite all its social and political problems, Venezuela is a beautiful country.

--- Updates (October 9, 2013) ---

In 2006, a couple of years after this entry was originally posted, I got some heat from a commenter upset of my positive treatment of the "barrio adentro" program:

Wow. It’s amazing how deep and accurate your comments about the situation in my country are. I suppose that for an Italian guy must be very mind-easer to support a “leftist government” that “helps” poor people by giving them everything they need. This is 2006 and those humble and nice poor people you feel so sorry about are now demanding houses, cars and everything “THEIR” government promised them would be given. If not they are just going to take it... Guess who is going to be stolen.... Well, let’s see...oh yeap, that forgetful and selfish bad middle class people who are in the opposition. But it’s OK you'll see the news on the civil war sitting in a nice balcony back there in Italy drinking a hot cappuccino thinking to yourself ... “poor people”. Just to finish I really hope you have such a president like mine in your country.... Ooops, sorry you already had one like him Mussolini I think his name was.

This was my answer at the time:

Yeah, you are not the first venezuelan calling me “Intelectual de Cafetin”.

There may be a lot to say about social justice in Venezuela, and who has “stolen” from whom for many years, but this is not the point.

The point I was trying to make is that the social programs the government is making in Venezuela are hugely popular among their recipients. One can argue if these programs are the best way of developing the country, or not, but it does not change the fact that the people in the barrios like them, and feel their lives are improved because of them. As a consequence Chavez is ever more popular among a large fraction of the voters. You can call this populism, if you want, but unless the opposition understand the need of social justice coming from the lower classes, they don't stand a chance of ever getting rid of Chavez, or the Chavismo (unless, of course, they try another coup, but this seems unlikely right now).

If I were in the opposition shoes, I would try to recognize more what are the good things that the government is claiming to do (the fact that they actually deliver is a different issue) in order to focus better on the bad parts. In this same post I mention a little episode about how the signatures for the referendum have been used (and are still used) to discriminate who is getting help and business from the government. Even if it is true that similar mechanisms were existing in the previous AD-COPEI parties power-sharing era (you could do business only if you were of the right crowd), it does not make it right. It is dangerous when a “revolutionary” impetus becomes excessive to the point that that people are blacklisted for their ideas or for exercising their democratic rights.

If you want to find a comparison with the Mussolini years in Italy, this is a good point. During the “ventennio” if you didn't wear a black shirt, or if you were not subscribed to the fascist party you were out (or in some cases locked in some jail, or killed if you were making too much noise). Venezuela is nowhere near the level of brutality and totalitarianism of the fascism in Italy (try to have an opposition newspaper at the time!), but it is still a slippery slope. And there are elements within the government supporters whose zeal is dangerously reminiscent of the Mussolini epoch. That said, if I were to look for fascists in Venezuela, I would find many of them in the opposition ranks, as illustrated by the short lived measures promulgated by the smiling Carmona, that would have made Mussolini and his concept of State very proud, if he didn't end up shot and hanged upside down in Milan in 1945.

These comments are still valid, even though the situation in the country has further degenerated since 2006. The ideological absolutism of chavismo has gotten worse, and the obstacles imposed to the supporters of the opposition, reminiscent of the "proscription lists" during the Italian fascism are even more wide spread. The press (especially the TV) are more and more controlled and effectively censored by the government (newspaper to be printed need paper, and the venezuelan government retains the monopoly of newsprint paper in the country). I could go on but now, if you would excuse me, is time to get me another cappuccino.

Merida, Venezuela (December 22, 2004)


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