Saturday, September 28, 2013

La Azulita

Merida, Venezuela (Dec 21, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 19, 2004 ---

No post for yesterday, since we really didn't do much. All I can remember now is that we changed the tires of Mayli’s mother car, which is a quite old Century Chevrolet, not exactly in perfect shape. Apart for the tires waiting to explode (one in fact did explode a few days before we arrived), it also has a problem with the automatic shift: the forward shifts do not engage until the car is warm, so one typically needs to start the car 15 minutes before using it. So we decided to rent a car for ourselves for a couple of days.

This morning we picked up the rental car at the airport. We got a Fiat Uno (it’s been many years since I drove one of those) with a manual shift. The idea was to drive on some off-the-touristic-path secondary roads on the mountains around Merida. Since we only had only the free afternoon, we decided to go to La Azulita, a relatively small village north of Merida, towards the Lake of Maracaibo (of pirate’s fame). La Azulita is about the same height (on the sea level) as Merida, but to go there one has to climb to Jaji and then follow a mountain road crossing the mountains. We drove along this road a few years ago, and I remember it was passing through an imposing mountain rainforest. As you can see from the photo below (taken along the road), the landscape is one of tree-covered mountains, each of them home of a full ecosystem of parasitic ferns and lichens (like the “barba de palo” hanging from the huge tree on the right).

What we didn't know was the damage that a few years of rain and lack of service have done to the road. Once passed Jaji, the road started to climb, with the pavement getting thinner at each turn, until it disappeared altogether in a mixture of gravel and mud. Fortunately it was a few days since the last rain, so the mud was still passable with our Uno, but a couple of times we had our suspicions of been utterly lost. At a particularly bad point the road ended abruptly in a grassy meadow: we didn't notice the detour the curve before. There we found a couple of kids, pretending to “fix the road” shoveling fresh mud in the numerous potholes. After giving them a tip for the service, we had some thoughts of returning on our way, but then decided that probably the worst was over.

When we were again thinking that we were lost, surrounded by the forest and the occasional cow grazing on the side of the road, we found a little construction with the big sign “Mercal”, one of the government subsidized stores for basic goods. Well, if the Bolivarian Revolution arrived there, then we were probably on the right way to La Azulita.

Once in La Azulita we decided that we had enough of mountain roads for the day, and drove towards El Vigia, a town in the plains at the bottom of the valley of Merida, from which a highway brought us back to Merida. This highway is very good for venezuelan standards, and connects Merida with the airport of “El Vigia” at the bottom of the valley. This airport was supposed to replace the one insanely built in the center of Merida, that can only being served by small planes because of the shortness of its runway and the proximity of high peaks surrounding the city. Merida’s people however still prefer to land in the old airport and the new one is not very much used. The highway however is quite nice and well maintained: a big difference with respect to other “highways I saw in the country (a few years ago I saw the signs ”beginning highway“ and ”end highway" a few meters apart at the two ends of a bridge connecting two ill-maintained roads).

Of course we arrived much later than we promised to Mayli’s mother, but the trip was well worth for the beautiful scenery.

--- Updates (September 28, 2013) ---

I am back from Germany (a 25 hours trip, which doesn't make any sense as it is about the same times that it takes for me to go to Japan). I didn't come back alone: I caught the flu during my trip. RURU ATTAKKU at the rescue.

When Mayli's mother read this post in 2004, she didn't like my dissing of her car: I retroactively apologize. That car didn't last much longer: at some point it spontaneously got fire and now she has a nice newer car.

The road to Azulita is now completely gone: we looked for it a couple of years ago, and we could not find it. It has been swallowed by the rain and lack of maintenance. As I mentioned a few posts ago, the airport in Merida has now been closed, and all flights land in El Vigia. The highway from El Vigia to Merida is now the only access to Merida from the airport. Its conditions have however significantly deteriorated: heavy rains has caused severe landslides and there are tracts that have to be closed every times it rains, which means that Merida is periodically isolated during the rainy season.

Merida, Venezuela (Dec 21, 2004)

Monday, September 23, 2013

No hay pollitos para usted

Merida, Venezuela (Dec 18, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 19, 2004 ---

I have no clue who those two little guys are. When yesterday we went to Mayli’s grandmother house (La Finca) I found these two with one of Mayli’s uncles. They may be some second degree cousins, or something. Anyway, the younger of the two caught my hand and told me: “come to see the pigs”. And there we went, along a path in the bananas field behind la Finca, to the place where the pigs are kept. The piglet in yesterday’s photo was one of them. I guess the little guy wanted me to accompany him to the piglets because he is not authorized to go alone. The pigs are in a place very close to a steep slope ending into the stream a hundred feet in the valley below, so he may be denied to go without adult supervision. Or maybe he just thought I would have liked the piglets (which in fact I did).

Today we went again at la Finca for lunch (where we had chinese food, and not -strangely enough- hallacas), but apart for that we didn't really do much. I did go to walk Sniffer, Mayli’s mother golden retriever, and we went together to La Parroquia, the nearby Merida neighborhood, where we saw the “caravanas de los gandoleros” (dozens of trucks passing through the village blowing their horns, I guess as part of the Christmas festivities).

There is something else about yesterday that I forgot to mention. When we were going to la Finca, we saw a very long queue on the side of the road. We stopped and Mayli asked what it was, hoping it was the queue to renew photo ids (apparently there is not an official place to do it, you have just to find the right queue wherever it forms). A policemen said that the queue was because they were giving pollitos (little chickens) at the government subsidized price. The policemen probably thought that Mayli intended to stay in line and get one pollito, because then added that, however, he could only guarantee that there were enough pollitos for the person that arrived just before Mayli, but not for her. Maybe he thought that the pollitos were not intended for somebody clearly not belonging to the intended recipients of the government aids... No pollitos for Mayli today.

--- Updates (September 23, 2013) ---

The tradition of giving "pollitos" to Venezuelan near the time of elections is a honored tradition of all political parties, since well before the rise of chavismo. The social-democratic Accion Democratica party (now at the opposition) was particularly notorious for showing up with a truck full of literal pollitos in the most remote village of the "llanos", to prop up the vote in their favor. Under Chavez, though, this tradition has reached unprecedented heights.

I have mentioned in the past how the venezuelan opposition spurred in 2002 a walk out from the national oil company. The goal was yet again to depose Chavez, following the unsuccessful coup against him just a few months before. The walk out gave Chavez the unique opportunity to sack all the pro-opposition management from the company, consolidating the absolute control of the government on the national oil revenues. It is with these revenues that the government has been financing the misiones, as well as other Chavez pet projects. This was done with the creation of a number of "black box" companies, with undisclosed books and outside the supervision of the Parliament. According to a special report by Reuter the largest of these corporations, FUNDEN, has received as of 2012 close to 100 billion dollars. That's not a typo: 100 billion, or 1 followed by 11 zeroes.

The activity of these corporations is shrouded in secret. It is widely believed that at least part of these enormous funds have been used as a formidable war chest to finance the extremely prodigal electoral campaigns of the government. That's a lot of pollitos, which can explain how Chavez managed to maintain a very high popularity even as the venezuelan economy was faltering, amid hyper-inflation and scarcity of basic goods and services. With 100 billion pollitos it is easy to win elections.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Pico Bolivar, Merida, Venezuela (Dec 18, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 17, 2004 ---

Piggy in Merida
Today we woke up again before dawn, to catch yet another plane. This time our destination was Merida in the Andes, where we will spend the rest of our vacations visiting Mayli’s mother. The flight was ok, even though I miscalculated in which side the Sun would be during the flight and couldn't almost make any decent photo of the wonderful landscape because of the sun glare on my window (I should have chosen a seat on the other side of the aircraft). Ah, we also lost the luggage, that fortunately arrived after a few hours (when flying from Caracas to Merida you have a 50% chances of losing your luggage, at least according our personal statistics).

While we were looking for our luggage, Mayli’s passport arrived, but nobody at Mayli’s mother house could get it. We will have to go to the courier office on Monday, when it will be open again. Then we spent the rest of the day at the house of Mayli’s grandmother, where there was a family reunion to prepare... guess what? Hallacas (in case you don’t know anything about hallacas, read the previous post). I made some photos there, including the one posted on the left, which I am sure a certain reader of this blog will like a lot.

--- Updates (September 18, 2013) ---

The reader mentioned above is Jennifer, that so answered the post:

"Ciao, looking at the pig again, really he is so beautiful, and such a smart looking blue eye... can you guys bring him back for me please? I’m serious. You could put a blanket around him and pretend he’s a little baby (remember Alice in Wonderland, they did that very thing)....a presto."

The original post had the piggy as main photo. While I was revising the "digital roll" of that trip, however, I noticed that maybe some of the photos from the plane were salvageable, so I replaced the main picture with a photo of the Pico Bolivar that, just shy of 5,000 m, is the highest mountain of Venezuela. If you read the Wikipedia page, you'll see that the mountain has two small glaciated areas. These are the remnants of a much larger glacier that one hundred years ago was covering over 10 squared km. It is estimated that by 2020 they will be entirely gone, making Venezuela the first andean country without glaciers.

Notice also how the yellow-rusted propeller plane is flying really low in-between the mountains. Landing in Merida was in a very impressive experience, as the city is laying on a plateau in between these very tall mountains, and finding the runway is quite an acrobatic feat that not all pilots know how to do. I used the past tense because a few years ago, after one of these small planes crashed on the mountains killing everybody on board, the airport was closed and it is now necessary to land far on the valley below, and then drive to Merida on a long narrow road that gets regularly flooded and covered by landslides in the rain season. This is very inconvenient (I bet the road is more dangerous than landing in Merida) but also a pity because the aerial view of these mountains is really breathtaking.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Caracas lights

Caracas, Venezuela (Dec 17, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 17, 2004 ---

The Christmas lights of Caracas slums, seen from the terrace of Mayli’s uncle house, as they follow the contours of the mountains around the city. We spent our last night in Caracas at an exquisite family dinner, eating hallacas and other delicacies. Hallacas is the typical Christmas-time dish in Venezuela. A sort of corn tortilla filled with meat and vegetable (a kind of “stuffed polenta”, the specific ingredients vary for different areas of Venezuela) wrapped in banana leaves. If you go to Venezuela at Christmas time you cannot avoid eating hallacas, as everybody prepares them according to an almost-secret recipe which is a family heirloom.

The main ingredient of hallacas is of course the corn flour, which is something very common in Venezuela. During the Christmas holiday of two years ago, anti-government demonstrations took the form of a two-months-long lockout of Venezuelan business, including the oil refinery business. To prevent a food scarcity due to the disruption of the private transportation involved in the lockout, the government started a system of basic goods distribution (with the help of the army) at subsidized price. These “mercals” become so popular among the lower classes (strongly supporters of the government) that have been maintained even after the defeat of the lockout, and the normalization of the situation. One of the typical items sold at the mercals is the corn flour for hallacas. As an effect of the prize subsidies, the private companies producing the flour had to lower their production costs, allegedly (I am not a corn flour expert to judge) resulting in a lower quality flour. This is apparently of great concern, in these days, for Caracas higher classes, that complain they have to buy re-imported corn flour (from Puerto Rico) to have the same quality as before.

This is quite typical of the venezuelan opposition: to find every day a new petty reason to complain against the government, and losing sight of the overall situation in their own country. One can dispute that the mercals are a good or bad initiative for venezuelan society (they guarantee the accessibility of basic goods for the large impoverished majority of venezuelan population, but at the same time they introduce unfair competition to the private business), but for sure are a very minor inconvenience for the social classes that often import luxury items paying in hard currency. Nobody seems to note that these same mercals (together with other social initiatives like literacy campaigns, “misiones” to provide basic health care in the lower-classes barrios) are having a much broader effect on venezuelan society that just changing the quality of the corn flour. For the first time since the oil boom in the ‘70s, the lower classes of Venezuela are seeing a government that is actually acting to reduce the effects of their impoverishment (again, one can dispute that these measures are the most effective, but still this is the perception of the people for which these initiatives are carried on). This means that for every new mercal, the government is increasing its popularity in the lower classes, which is more and more motivated to vote at the next election. Consider that the lower classes make up almost 80% of the total population, and it is easy to predict how slimmer and slimmer are getting the chances of the opposition to regain the lost power (at least in a democratic way; the opposition did try and narrowly failed a coup in April 2002).

To all the above, you should also add a small but significant detail. All the “misiones” for basic literacy and health care are managed according to plans inspired by international organizations (like the UN), but developed in Cuba, with the help of cuban doctors and teachers. This is not something entirely new. Cuba has a great expertise in providing health care and basic education in remote and impoverished areas, and has successfully done it in many parts of the world (including Cuba itself, that has a very high education rate and expectancy of life despite decades of US-led economic embargo). What is new is the scale in which these initiatives are carried-on in Venezuela (more than one million people involved in the literacy program only), thanks to the high revenues from the venezuelan oil, now at an historic maximum. People learn by example, and is sensible to think that the communities involved in the misiones will be ideologically affected by the contact with cuban volunteers that for a very low salary are significantly improving their life.

All this is something the venezuelan opposition seems to ignore, too involved in petty arguments with the government for issues like the quality of the corn flour, to realize the political shift toward the left that their country is living, and the increasing political awareness of the traditionally disenfranchised lower classes.

--- Updates (September 16, 2013) ---

After a decade of "Misiones" one can start looking at their effects on the overall venezuelan society, and check if they have accomplished their stated goals, and at what cost. We can have a quick look at the three misiones cited above, the Mision Robinson (basic literacy), the Mision Barrio Adentro (basic health care) and the Mision Mercal (basic food security). If you trust the numbers provided by the government, all these misiones have been a resounding success. Over 1,500,000 venezuelan have received basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, essentially zeroing the rate of illiteracy in the country. In a decade, infant mortality rate fell from 21.3/1,000 to 13/1,000, and extreme poverty was reduced from 20.6% to 9.41%. From the point of view of the lower venezuelan classes, where extreme poverty, illiteracy and barriers to health care access were highest, the misiones have become an essential part of ordinary life, and studies (Briggs et al., 2009) show that their influence was crucial in determining the ongoing support of the venezuelan electorate for the "bolivarian" government.

From the point of view of the middle class, however, the results have been very different. Despite one of the goals of the Mision Mercal was the development of food sovereignty, the government subsidies, together with the recourse to price control (often below cost), have indeed destroyed the local industry and agriculture. This has led to severe and recurrent shortages of basic food staples, including Harina Pan which is now entirely produced and imported from Colombia. While this is nothing new for the venezuelan in the lower economic brackets, this has resulted in a considerable degradation of the quality of life for venezuelan middle classes, that were used to economic standards comparable to the US middle class. Similarly, the influx of resources towards the misiones had not been matched with efforts aimed to preserve the services that are crucial to the development of Venezuela as a modern industrialized society: infrastructure (which is crumbling), hospitals (suffering the same shortages as always) and universities (see my previous post for an example).

Even in 2004, the main criticism against the misiones was that they were unsustainable populistic measures. This has been proven true, as all the gains obtained by these initiative are conditioned to a large influx of funding derived from Venezuelan oil revenues. The misiones have been heavily and successfully used as an electoral tool but, were the funding be discontinued due to a sudden depression of the oil revenues, they would leave behind a country which is even less equipped than before to deal with the enormous problems that the misiones are temporarily addressing. While it is unlikely that the international price of the oil barrel will dramatically decrease, the oil revenues of Venezuela have already being reducing due to decreased oil production which is the consequence of, guess what, lack of proper maintenance of the extraction equipment.

PS: I added the strike through in the text above because 10 years later I now realize the language I used was unfairly harsh. It is wrong for me to describe as "petty" the complains venezuelan had (and have) about shortages, since I am not the one subjected to them. Even knowing that one needs to look at the venezuelan population as a whole, to understand the overall effects of the misiones on the country, I would still be very upset if the result of these initiative was the depression of my standard of life. Other countries (e.g. Brazil under the government of Lula) have achieved similar advances in regard of literacy, food security and health care than Venezuela, without destroying their middle class in the process, and preserving the basic civil liberties that are now too often violated on the altar of the "ideological purity" of the bolivarian government.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Venezuelan Physicists

Universidad Simon Bolivar, Caracas (Dec 17, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 16, 2004 ---

Today Mayli went to a conference on high energy physics, hosted at the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas (this was one of the many reasons for this trip). I was still sick, so I stayed home (I actually took this photo the next day) resting, while Mayli gave her talk about her neutrino experiment. All the participants at the conference were venezuelan physicists, some of them living in the country, several of them (like Mayli) working abroad. From left to right, Nelson, Jota, Alejandra and Mayli. Nelson was the thesis advisor of Mayli while she was studying at the University in Merida. Jota and Alejandra were both in Trieste (in Italy) while I was doing my Ph.D. there (I actually shared my office with Alejandra, who has also been my spanish teacher for a while, and she was the person introducing Mayli to me). Jota now works in Paris and Stanford, while Alejandra is back to Merida working on beautiful theories on right-handed neutrinos.

All venezuelan physicists that are back to Venezuela, except one, are theoreticians (theory require less funding than experimental physics). So most of the talks were in fact very theoretical and abstract, and the next day, when I actually accompanied Mayli at the conference, I enjoyed a day of superstrings, supersymmetry, Feynman diagrams and Ising models, lots of elegant stuff I didn’t see since my quantum field theory course in the University (I had been trained as a physicist, and only later become an astronomer).

--- Updates (September 13, 2013) ---

Since 2004 I have returned to Venezuela many times. keeping an eye on the status of scientific research in the country. As time passed under the "bolivarian" government, the situation in venezuelan academia has mirrored the changes happening to rest of Venezuelan society. The main issue is the interference of politics in places that should have nothing to do with politics. This has led to the appointment of incompetents in positions of responsibility at the head of scientific institutions, named only because of their political connections. They end up using these institutions to further their political ambitions, with no regard for the needs of the scientific staff, which is tolerated as long as it is not seen as an obstacle for their career. This sometimes leads to tragicomical consequences.

A few years ago the venezuelan government decided to change the timezone of Venezuela by half an hour, joining an exclusive club of only a few nations (Iran, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Australia) with an half-hour offset with respect to the rest of the world. The official reason for the change was to have a time zone that was better centered with the median longitude of the country, so that in the West of Venezuela schoolchildren would not have to go to school while it was still dark. Malignant voices suggested that the real reason for the measure was that Chavez didn't want to be on the same time zone as the "Evil Empire" up North. Whatever the reason, it happened that a scientist friend of mine was asked by a journalist if it was true that by changing the timezone as proposed by the government, the sunrise would come half an hour earlier. My friend replied that yes, this was indeed the truth, and that it was also true that sunset would come half an hour earlier. The (opposition) newspaper immediately titled that the time zone plan of the government was evil because it would steal from all venezuelan half an hour of light at the end of each day. My friend was immediately called in the office of is (political) director, and told that since that moment the scientific staff was forbidden to talk to the press because it was inadmissible to divulge informations that were contrary to the actions of the government.

Political interference on what scientists can say is not unique to Venezuela (think on the gag-orders trying to silence climate scientists during the Bush administration, against internet security experts right now, and against every scientist in Canada). When I was in Italy it was a well known and accepted fact that to do a certain kind of career in Universities you needed to have the right political connections. One professor was infamously arrested at the University where I studied because his name was found on the list of a secret masonic group accused of plotting a right-wing power-grab of the italian institutions (Berlusconi was another member of the same group).

Despite everything, however, the last time a political institution succeeded to gag an italian scientist for saying some scientific truth about the relative movement of the Earth and the Sun, was almost 400 years ago. Even in that case, the muffle didn't really work (eppur si muove).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tropics and Checks

Caracas, Venezuela (December 16, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 15, 2004 ---

The capital of Venezuela was built by the spanish conquerors on the site of one of the largest indigenous settlements, inhabited by a population called “Caracas” (hence the name of the city). Built in a valley at 900m on the sea level (2700 ft), separated by a mountain from the caribbean sea, it has a warm but not hot climate. The Caracas and the spaniards knew what they were doing when they chose the place where to built their cities. Thanks to this ideal location, there are parts on the city resembling a tropical garden, with gigantic plants and flowers. The orchids above are growing in the garden of Mayli’s father house.

Satellite antenna
I am a little sick, so I didn’t do much today. I spent most day at Mayli’s father home, except for a short visit to a supermarket where I experienced how cashing a check can be quite a complicate business in Venezuela. In Italy people rarely use checks, because cashing them is almost impossible (you need to physically go to the same branch where you opened your account, in the couple of hours of the few days of the week when the banks are actually open to the public). In US people usually buy their stuff with credit or ATM cards. In Venezuela instead checks are apparently in vogue. So there is a fancy system in which you give a signed check to the cashier of the supermarket, and the computer at the cashier desk prints everything on it. Nice, uh? Well in theory. In practice you have to wait half an hour because the computer cannot connect to the bank to certify that the check is valid, and then the cashier has to talk to the supermarket supervisor to know what to do. Bottom line: if you can, use cash. Too much technology can be counter-productive if you don’t have the infrastructure to support it.

Mayli instead went to the US embassy to renew her visa. That was pretty fast (fortunately, these things can be pretty random) and the visa was approved the same morning. She will get the passport back with the new visa stamp in a few days in Merida (a city on the Andes where we will go at the end of the week). That of course after Mayli paid a $100 fee plus other $100 paid by her University, plus $40 in high rate telephone calls to get the appointment at the embassy. Getting a US visa (even a touristic one) is not cheap, which is quite unfair given that americans do not have to pay that much to have visas of other countries. A few countries however have the guts to retaliate. Every time I go to Chile for an observing run, I walk through immigration without any delay and fee. My american colleagues instead have to stop at a separate office and pay their $100, which it seems fair to me given that chilean have to pay the same to enter US. Anyway, I hope Mayli’s passport will arrive in time while we are in Merida.

--- Updates (September 10, 2013) ---

There may be a reason why checks are popular in Venezuela.

Credit/Debit Cards, assuming one can afford them, may be too easy to counterfeit. Venezuelan were famously ingenious in counterfeiting telephone cards (remember those?), doesn't matter hot technologically complicated they were. They even invented fake fronts for the ATM machines that look identical to the actual machine behind, give actual money, but clone the card in the process. Credit cards would be a piece of cake to counterfeit. 

Cash is too dangerous. Robbers wait people at the exit of the bank to steal the money from their pockets at gunpoint. Happened to a person I know. He knew this kind of things are common, so while still in the bank he split between his two pockets the cash fresh from the ATM. Robbers are however the wiser, and he was asked to show that both pockets were empty. When the robber saw he was trying to trick him, he got pissed and mock-executed the poor guy (there was no bullet in the gun, but still). And this was in full daylight, at the center of Merida which is a relatively safe city.

Speaking of robberies and shopping malls, just behind the corner of Mayli's father house there is a movie theatre. A few years ago, armed robbers entered the theatre, robbed everybody and then left, in the middle of the movie feature. Just like that. I wonder if they were projecting Pulp Fiction... Nah, and I doubt that Samuel L. Jackson was there.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Back to Caracas

Los Roques, Venezuela (December 13, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 14, 2004 ---

We are back in Caracas. Since I still didn’t take my camera out in the street of Caracas I am posting a photo of Los Roques that I took yesterday from the airplane. A kind of “au revoire” to Los Roques and the incredible colors of its water.

Los Roques aerial
We spent the whole morning at the headquarter of a foundation that provides loans for Venezuelan students that want to get a degree abroad (Mayli had one of such loans). The mechanism is simple and perverse. The loans are paid in the foreign currency of the place where the student is going to stay, converted into bolivares (the venezuelan currency) after each payment, and finally paid back in bolivares once the contract is closed. The loan has an interest rate tied to the venezuelan currency, which in recent years has been devalued by a large factor (it is currently 14% but has been even higher at some point). The end result is that a loan can increase to a very large amount by the time the student gets the diploma and closes the contract, especially in the case of a Ph.D. degree that typically takes many years to finish. In this case the monthly installments that a student may have to pay can be much higher than the average stipend of a venezuelan university professor. The consequence is that the debt can be practically impossible to pay, following the scheme of high interest loans that the World Bank forces down the throats of Developing World countries. To make sure that the loan is recovered, the foundation asks “fiadores” to co-sign the contract (third persons that will assume the responsibility of repaying the debt and the penalties in case the student is not solvent). To qualify as a fiador one needs to have enough money to be in the upper few percent of venezuelan society, e.g. even upper middle class citizens typically do not qualify. As a consequence, only people whose family already has the money to send its children abroad to study qualify for the loan, which complete the perversity of the system (Mayli’s parents didn’t qualify and she had to ask her uncle to sign the contract). The stated goal of the foundation is to promote higher education in the country, and considers a “failure” the case of students that do not come back in Venezuela after completing their degrees. Students that come back have a discount in their payments while students that do not return have penalties (in some cases they are required to pay back twice as much as the total loan). Apart from this, there are difficulties to overcome in order to get a new visa for the US after completing the program with the foundation.

I think this attitude is completely wrong. First of all, given that this is a loan and not a fellowship, it is an unfair burden to require the students to give the money back, and also forcibly return). One should also discuss the rationale for forcing people to live in a country not necessarily able to offer the kind of employment for which the person pursued the degree. Mayli is an high energy physicist. She is working at Harvard University on a neutrino experiment at Fermilab and in Minnesota. In Venezuela there is not a single high energy experimental physicist. Venezuela has so many other priorities that spending large amounts of money in high energy physics experiments would be simply outrageous (most of the money the government is spending in education goes to basic literacy programs, and professional courses, and this is the right thing to do in a country where a large segment of the population is illiterate). If she (and the other few venezuelan high energy physicists I know) were forced to return in Venezuela, she would be essentially wasted. My take is that she is much more useful to venezuelan society by working abroad. Having a contact in a prestigious scholarly institution is essential for venezuelan universities, because it allows exchanges (in term of studentships, research grant money in hard currencies, collaboration) which are indispensable for the growth of venezuelan scientific research. Returning home to be unemployed or hired with a low wage salary not even sufficient to pay the student loan does not seem a very clever scheme to me.

We spent the rest of the day home relaxing, and reading the email that have accumulated in the last few days (over 150 non-spam emails). The good news is that a project on which I am working on has been selected for a press release in the next American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego. You may read about my scientific work in your local newspaper in January The bad news is that the research is all but ready for publication, so I will have to work while here. Damn!

--- Updates (September 8, 2013) ---

After a long, expensive and complicated process, a few years later we managed to pay Mayli's student loan in full. We were probably the last (only?) people to ever repay the debt in full: shortly after we managed to pay and to get the release letter Mayli needed for her US Green Card, the program was reformed and the debt waived. It seems now to be more accessible (it is now a true fellowship), and the requirement to return to Venezuela to work for 3 years minimum in some government or social program has been strengthened. At least this is what I can figure out from their website; the practice in Venezuela is not necessarily what it looks like in theory. If this is truly a fellowship based on merit, the requirement of social work is not without merit: not much different than the GI bill in US (even though in that case service came before the benefits). Still I would not advise it for professions that would require working abroad, like physics, especially since in physics you can be admitted to graduate programs, based on merit, that include tuition, salary and health insurance: the salary is not very high, but you don't need to get a loan to do a Ph.D. in Physics.

Interesting side note: the program now allows postgraduate studies only in selected institutions, which are available in all continents except North America. This may have to do with the new stated mission of the foundation: "Formando Para el Socialismo". I guess the States don't do very well in terms of Socialist education.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Last Day in Los Roques

Los Roques, Venezuela (December 11, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 12, 2004 ---

The last day in Los Roques we decided to take it easy. We went to the nearest island (Madrisqui) and stayed there for the morning (we had to go back in Gran Roque by 5PM to catch the airplane to Caracas). We spent the morning resting on the beach (very similar to the one above, all white coral sand), and listening to the conversation of our neighbors. They were a middle aged couple accompanied by a local, who talked all the time about his active role in the local opposition party. In the end I didn’t have very clear if he was sincere in his tirade or was just faking it for the sake of his employer, as we know that during the 2002 coup, when the president Chavez was prisoner in a nearby island (la Orchila, see update below) the fishermen of Los Roques organized an expedition to free him (he was freed by his captors before they could actually carry on their plans). 

In the afternoon we went for our last snorkeling dive of the trip. On the backside of the island there is a nice coral reef, which is however difficult to reach from the beach. What we did was to enter in the water from the beach and then swim our way to the reef. Unfortunately there was some “agua mala” (urticant algae) so we had to clear the initial part of the dive quite fast. When we finally reached the reef we didn’t want to go back the same way, so we just swam all around the reef to the other side of the island where we managed to find our way between the corals (not an easy operation due to the shallow waters). The full dive was quite tiresome, but a good ending for our vacation, as we managed to see a lot of new fishes, even though the corals were quite ruined (I believe by some storms a few years before). We made it just in time for the boat that was to bring us back, run to the posada for a very fast shower, and then to the airfield to catch the plane back to Caracas. Last note of the day: in the Caracas airport we met one of the uncountable cousins of Mayli (yes, large family) and her spanish fiancee, in transit to Puerto de la Cruz (east of Venezuela) to visit her sister.

--- Updates (September 6, 2013) ---

It is time to elaborate on the 2002 coup against the venezuelan president Chavez, which I have abundantly mentioned in this and previous blog posts. It is a fascinating story worth telling. The coup came as the culmination of a long struggle between the loyalist party, supported by the lower economical classes (by far the majority of the venezuelan population) and the opposition parties (financed by the US and supported by the high and middle classes, the anti-communist corrupted unions and the Opus Dei, one of the most reactionary sector of the Catholic Church). The day preceding the coup the opposition organized a protest through the center of Caracas, which was diverted at the last minute to march towards the presidential palace (Miraflores) demanding the resignation of the president. The same day, supporters of the president had organized their own march. The two groups were kept (barely) separated by the municipal police (controlled by the city government, in control of the opposition). This didn't last long: violence soon started at the now infamous "puente Llaguno" (an overpass in Caracas) with police and demonstrators shooting to each other. To this date there is no agreement about what happened exactly, and who started to shoot first. The fact is that demonstrators on both sides started to fall, many hit on the head by hidden sharpshooters. The violence was broadcasted live on the (private, pro-opposition) TV, accusing the government of the massacre and appealing to the military to intervene.

And the military did intervene, taking Chavez prisoner to the Orchila island (near Los Roques), while the head of the Chamber of Commerce Pedro Carmona was installed as provisional president. His first act was to suspend the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the Electoral Commission and just about any other elected official. He then put on his mint-new presidential sash, that he "presciently" ordered a few months before, and smiled.

This in fact didn't go very well with the supporters of Chavez that, within the lower economical classes numbered in the millions. They all descended to the streets demanding the return of "their" president. The military themselves were divided, with the US-educated higher echelons supporting the coup, and the rank-and-file troops loyalist to Chavez. The turning point came when Raul Baduel, an old-time comrade of Chavez and at the time the chief of an important military garrison, refused to submit to the coup and menaced to attack Caracas (Baduel years later fell from Chavez favor and was imprisoned under corruption charges --- he is still in prison today). At the same time the presidential guard (that the organizers of the coup forgot to replace) in the Miraflores palace organized their counter-coup, taking Carmona and his provisional president prisoner, thus reversing the situation. Chavez was released shortly after and reinstated as legitimate president. All this lasted less than three days.

You can see the whole thing (and more) unfolding in the excellent documentary made by an irish troupe that by chance was in Venezuela when this happened.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Los Roques, Venezuela (December 11, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 12, 2004 ---

For the second day in Los Roques we planned to have some snorkeling in one of the islands farther away from Gran Roque. The day before we planned the excursion with the same people of the scuba diving, but when we went to their office in the morning we were told that for problems with their boat the trip in program (to the “Boca de Cote” in the far south of the archipelago) was not possible. So they called another agent that was able to fix the trip for us. All these excursions are managed by local fishermen, that are contracted for bringing tourists on the diving locations with their small boats. These boats are very light, but are mostly equipped with two engines, which means that they race very fast on the shallow waters in the archipelago, jumping from one wave to the next with unpleasant consequences for our bottoms seated on hard wooden benches.

The snorkeling was great. While we were snorkeling one of the guys that accompanied us fished four lobster (it is lobster season in Los Roques from November to April, see note #1 below), going down in apnea with a lazo in his hands to catch the lobsters hiding between the corals. I followed him a few times without realizing that we were going quite deep until I looked up and saw the surface several meters above me. I usually don’t go very deep in apnea while snorkeling, but yesterday’s lessons on how to compensate the pressure in my ears helped me to go deeper than usual without problems. It was very beautiful again and we saw a lot of fishes, among which a pretty big barracuda swimming not far from us.

El Palafito
On our way back we stopped at the “palafito”, a shack built on poles in the middle of the archipelago, which is used by the fishermen to temporarily place the lobsters. I took the photo on the left from there. The “rocks” in the foreground are corals. The colors of the water in Los Roques is totally unique. Somebody told me that you cannot say that you know the color blue if you have not been in Los Roques. After the palafito we spent the afternoon in one of the islands, called Crasqui, which has a nice beach and a nice coral reef where we did our afternoon snorkeling. Crasqui also has a fishermen restaurant, where we had an excellent lobster (lobsters here tastes different than in New England). We spent the rest of the time talking with Juan, a local kid that was helping the guy driving the boat. Juan is a nice character. Born in Caracas he moved when he was a kid to Los Roques, where he had some relatives. The conditions in Caracas are very harsh and dangerous for the lower classes living in the barrios, and there is an elevated rate of crime and unemployment (see note #2 below). His parents figured that they had better chances as fishermen and moved in this little archipelago (that was before the tourism took off). Now they are managing some of these tours for adventurous tourists, and the restaurant where we had the lobster. Juan was in vacation (he is studying in the local high school in Gran Roque) so he was spending some time helping his uncles in their activity. He befriended us and we spent the day together exploring the island and talking about the life in the archipelago.

After the afternoon snorkeling dive we headed back to Gran Roque, to have dinner in our posada, accompanied by the usual talks about italian politics with the other occupants of the place (see note #3 you know where).

--- Updates (September 4, 2013) ---

1. If you want to know more (a lot more) about Los Roques lobsters, you can read this scientific publication (warning, large file, unless you are lucky enough live in a place with hyper-fast internet).

2. Turns out that Caracas is not the most dangerous city in the world (excluding war zones). The record is owned by San Pedro Sula in Honduras, with an yearly rate of 159 homicides every 100,000 habitants. Caracas is "only" sixth, with a rate of 99. Most of the cities in the list are in latin America, especially Mexico and Brasil. The first US city is New Orleans, with a rate of 58. The first city in Africa is Cape Town with a rate of 46. There are no cities from other continents among the 50 cities with the highest rate (again, this excludes war zones, even though this 2010 article on the New York Times pointed out that Venezuela is overall more dangerous than war time Iraq). 

3. The prime minister in Italy at the time was Silvio Berlusconi. As you can imagine the topic of discussion at dinner was how bad (or good) Berlusconi was for Italy. Since then he has been on and off the government until last year, when he was forced out in the mid of sex and corruption scandals and economic depression. Italians are still discussing how bad (or good) Berlusconi is for Italy.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Scuba Diving in Los Roques

Los Roques, Venezuela (December 13, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 11, 2004 ---

This morning we arrived in Los Roques in one of the first flights from Caracas. Los Roques is a caribbean paradise off the venezuelan coast, not too far from Aruba and Bonaire, but less touristic. Since 1972 the archipelago is a venezuelan national park, because of its beauty and ecological importance, and this status contributed to maintain its pristine preserved conditions. Only one island (Gran Roque) is rocky and permanently inhabited, while the others are piles of coral sand emerging from the shallow caribbean sea. The total population of the archipelago is about 1,300 people, mostly devoted to fishing and tourism.

We had a reservation in a small posada (three rooms only) called Albacora, right in the center of Gran Roque. Part of the charm of Los Roques is that there are no building taller than two floors, and all the posadas are made from transformed fishermen houses (see the photo above, which I took from the terrace of our posada). No big hotels like other popular destinations in the Caribbean sea. For this reason I thought that Los Roques was a kind of unknown secret location, and going there was a very original thing to do. Boy I was wrong. Turns out that the owner of the posada was italian. Many of the tourists were also italians. If you look on the web you will even find a forum where italians discuss their vacations on Los Roques! So much for my originality... Anyway, the posada was nice, and being in the middle of all these italians that can pay a trip from Italy to Los Roques gave Mayli an interesting perspective about my compatriots different from my usual penniless leftists friends.

Which bird is this?
For the first day, we had reserved a mini scuba course (with a small group called ecobuzos). The original idea was to stay long enough to do the full course with PADI certification, but that would have required at least 5 days, which was more than we had available. So we ended up with an introductory one-day course, basically a way to get a minimum of information to allow a 45 minute immersion at 10m depth. If you haven’t done scuba diving and you want to try, this is a good way to understand if this is an activity for you. I had done a short immersion in Paris (in a swimming pool) a few years ago, but this is of course a completely different experience. And what an experience! Being down there is simply out of this world. The corals and fishes that you can see are different and more varied than the ones you normally encounter snorkeling within a few meters from the surface. But that’s not all of it. What is incredible is the total sensation of absence of weight, and the protective blue darkness that is all around you. The only other times I have felt such kind of exhilaration was when I was doing caving in Trieste (Italy), being in the solitary silence of a cave deep down the surface, with thin blue rays of light coming from above. Now of course I am totally hooked and I want to do it again for real (I seriously considered to stay there for a few more days and complete the certification, despite all the things that we have to do in Caracas)... After the immersion the guy of the scuba diving course left us on a white beach for the rest of the afternoon, where we relaxed until it was the time to come back to the posada.

--- Updates (September 2, 2013) ---

1. A few years later we did get the full PADI certification. We did it in Boston, which is maybe not as exotic as Los Roques, but that's where we were living. The problem of getting certified in Massachusetts is that you have then to do the open water dives in the Atlantic, which is quite cold. Add that we got certified during the fall, and you can guess what kind of temperature the water was (Mayli refused to brave the cold and postponed her certification dive to our following trip to Hawaii, which was actually a smart idea).

2. Los Roques unfortunately has become notorious in the last few years because of the string of accidents in which several small airplanes were lost en route to the islands. The most famous accident was the one in which the airplane carrying italian fashion magnate Vittorio Missoni and his wife disappeared. After much conspiracy, the wreckage of the plane was found 70 meters under the water. The likely cause of this and the other accidents is the poor maintenance of the planes, often operated outside regulations by unlicensed operators. 

3. Crime is unheard of in Los Roques, but occasionally the pervasive violence in the mainland spills over. One particularly gruesome episode happened a few years ago, when some drug lord from Caracas decided to punish one of the (italian) landlords of a Los Roques posada for some perceived slight (it is believed that there was some jealousy involved). With his band of thugs he landed on the main island at night, entering the main bedroom of the posada, and raping and killing the people inside. What the criminals didn't know, however, is that in that particular night the posada was overbooked, and the main bedroom was given to some completely innocent guests (also italian) that met that way their tragic fate. Even the safest place in the world, if it is in Venezuela, it is not entirely safe.

4. Given the wide publicity in the italian press of the Missoni plane disappearance and the crime episode described above (combined with the italian bad economy), I would have thought that the islands had become less popular among italian tourists. Not so much, apparently, as a large fraction of web reviews of the Los Roques posadas are still written by italian tourists.

Los Roques, Venezuela (December 11, 2004)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

En Route to Caracas

On the DFW to CCS flight (December 10, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 10, 2004 ---

Venezuela is a fascinating country with a breathtaking beautiful nature and warm people. Is also a country of contrasts, with a large section of the population living in degrading slums, and a minority enjoying a standard of life comparable with the rich elites of Northern America or Europe. In recent years Venezuela has lived through a stormy political phase in which a leftist government supported by the lower classes is strongly opposed by the high and middle classes. This conflict has led in April 2002 to a coup organized by the media and the industrial elite, with the probable support of the CIA. The coup failed for the divisions between its promoters and because of the extraordinary support that the government still had among the Venezuelan people, but in the next years the conflict continued on the social, economical and political arena, and culminated a few months ago with a recall referendum called by the opposition to remove the president Chavez from power. The referendum also failed confirming once more the vast support that the government policies enjoy between the large majority of poor venezuelan. All these conflicts reflect deeply in many aspect of the venezuelan society, and will be present in my photos and their stories.

The Mississippi Delta
The diary start with the trip from Boston to Caracas. This was a long trip. We left home in Boston at 7AM to get an earlier flight to Dallas, with a connection three hours later for Cacaras. Not the most direct route, but the only one we could find with tickets bought using free miles. I spent most of the first flight sleeping (I had to work until late the day before, trying frantically to finish all I could before leaving), and then reading on the second flight. Mayli found a book about the years that Albert Einstein spent in Berlin from just before WWI until he was forced to flee with the advent of Nazism. A sort of scientific biography mixed with sociology. It is a very interesting book, as it shows how a highly civilized society could descent into barbarism and surrender itself to a group of murderous fanatics. I still have to finish it (I guess I will have again time on my way back) but so far is very instructive. The only moment I wasn’t reading was when looking at the sun was setting over the clouds and the sea, and a little time before that, when we were flying above the beautiful arabesques of Alabama or Louisiana marshes.

We arrived in La Guaira (the city where the airport of Caracas is located) very late at night. Mayli’s father came to pick us up and drove us to the city. La Guaira is a city on the coast, about 45 minutes from Caracas, from which it is separated by a mountain (Sierra del Avila). A highway passing through a narrow valley connects Caracas to the coast, and its airport. As usual entering Caracas at night from La Guaira offers a view which is at the same time magnificent and frightening. Caracas is a very large city, with a population over 4 millions, more than half of which living in shantytowns made of brick or carton shacks (called ranchitos). These shantytowns hang on the slopes of the mountains surrounding Caracas (and in periods of intense tropical rains are at risk of mudslides, as it happened in December 1999, when between 30 and 50 thousand people were killed). The ranchitos do not have public services (electricity is typically stolen from nearby power lines) and grew exponentially in the last decades without an organized plan. As a result, they appear from the highway as an anarchy of Christmas lights, extending everywhere around the high rise modern buildings of the city. The photo below shows a similar view taken a few days later from within the city.

We will be in Venezuela until December 29. I will try to post a new story every day, even if in some case (like for this post) I will have to do it retroactively, as tomorrow we will leave for Los Roques, and archipelago of thousands of islands surrounded by a coralline barrier off the coast of Venezuela. I don’t expect to find internet there, but I will post photos from that paradise that I already visited a few years ago upon my return to Caracas.

Slums around Caracas at night (December 17, 2004)