Venezuela, Sad and Surreal

By Pablo Kleinman

The Caracas Metro is modern and attractive. The trains are practically identical to those of the Washington DC Metro, and the turnstiles, the same as the ones found throughout Madrid’s subway system. But all similarities end there: inside the subway cars, instead of commercial advertisements there are only posters with propaganda for Hugo Chavez’s “socialist” revolution. The stations, although built relatively recently, are pretty run down and almost every escalator I saw there was out of service.

It was Friday morning of last week, and I had taken the subway to the financial district to exchange dollars for local currency in the black market, in which the Venezuelan Bolívar Fuerte is worth about a third of the value arbitrarily set by the government in the “official” market. The value set by the government is 2.15 to the dollar, while in the black market I was able to get 6.30 Bolívares for every dollar I had, effectively tripling my purchasing power.

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On my way back to the hotel, I happened to be on the same train as a group of Chavista red shirts, who much like Cuba’s infamous Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, have as their main purpose the intimidation of those who speak out against the government and are opposed to the incipient communist dictatorship that is slowly being established in Venezuela.

The red shirts went in through a side door, skipping the turnstiles and not paying the subway fare, and got off at the same stop as I, at Plaza Altamira, which is an elegant square located across the street from the Caracas Palace Hotel. That is the hotel where I and a few dozen other foreign participants of an international forum organized by Cedice, a Venezuelan free market think-tank, were staying. The forum, which was also taking place at the hotel, was officially titled “Freedom, Democracy, Private Property and the Fight Against Poverty” and coincided with the celebration of Cedice’s 25th anniversary.

On Wednesday of last week, at around noon, very loud music began to be heard inside the hotel, which we soon realized was coming from three trucks equipped with several loudspeakers each, which had been parked across the street from the hotel’s entrance by a group of red shirts. Soon after, the red shirts began chanting slogans and giving out speeches, which would continue throughout the rest of the week and were interrupted by music and by monologues given live via satellite by president Chávez himself. They also held banners with communist propaganda such as “50,000 children are killed by capitalism every day.”

Despite their menacing demeanor, the red shirts were pretty harmless. They did seem to be screaming out of control at times and were giving away flyers with the pictures of some of the attendees to the event, branding them as fascists, as CIA agents, agents of the [American] empire or of multinational corporations. But they were also behaving like regular Latin American government employees: taking a long break at lunch time and leaving at the end of the day when what were evidently their “office hours” were over.

The unconcealed interest of the Chavista government, no longer accustomed to demonstrations of opposition or to free speech, combined with the constant harassment by the government to the organizers and participants of the event, served to turn what was originally meant as a simple gathering of intellectuals into a very high profile event. The whole country – and the whole of Latin America – ended up finding out about what was happening in Caracas and what our gathering was all about.

In the end, however, neither the organizers nor the participants were cowed by the thuggish behavior of the Venezuelan authorities. A parallel gathering of so-called “left wing scholars,” hastily put together by the government, came and went without generating any interest. If anything, it served to underscore the fact that there are still so-called progressives who, the same way they did with the Soviet dictatorship, are perfectly willing to defend and justify, however incoherently, a dictatorial, anti-democratic and repressive regime like the one led by Hugo Chávez.

The furious reaction of Chávez himself and of his cronies to a gathering organized by a small free-market think tank, reflected in the brief detention upon arrival at the airport of a couple of the main speakers, in the hundreds of hours devoted by the government-run radio and television to condemning the event and in the constant harassment by the red shirts, highlighted the fact that in Venezuela there is very little freedom of expression left and that the Chávez regime, despite having gotten to power originally through a democratic process, no longer exhibits any democratic characteristics.

Towards the end of the conference, the Venezuelan ruler challenged some of the main participants in the event to a face-to-face debate on his own live television show, «Aló Presidente». Although his challenge was accepted, the caudillo, much more used to reciting monologues and to ordering people around than to debating and explaining himself, soon found a way of coping out of the confrontation without giving a serious explanation.

Unfortunately, there are very few indications that the evolution towards a full-fledged dictatorship in Venezuela is about to slow down. In fact, things seem to be speeding up in that direction, as individual rights get trampled on with more frequency and gusto by the regime. For the time being, the only certainty is that whatever Chávez says is what gets done, period. This situation will not last forever and nobody really knows how long it will last, but what’s undeniable is that lots of suffering awaits the Venezuelan people in the times ahead.

Pablo Kleinman is Editor-in-Chief of Diario de América, a Spanish-language political journal, and President of the Californiana Foundation, a Los Angeles-based think tank.

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