Between rising crime, food shortages and Hugo Chavez's constant speeches, Venezuelans find some solace in humor.
BY GUSTAVO CORONEL
It is not easy being a Venezuelan these days. Living in our country is a high-risk affair, as illustrated by the 101,470 Venezuelans who have died violently during the last ten years, a tragic official statistic that has placed Venezuela as the most dangerous country in the hemisphere. Few Venezuelans, especially in the large urban areas, dare to go out at night.
Meanwhile, food shortages are increasing and the average housewife has to visit half a dozen markets in order to find all she needs, provided she can afford it. Often she will have to return home without some of the basic components of the Venezuelan diet: coffee, rice, milk, and meat of some sort, sugar or corn flour.
When watching television, be it a baseball game, a soap opera or the news, the families never know when the face of President Hugo Chavez will fill the screen, signaling the beginning of yet another national, compulsive media hookup, in which the president will discuss global political problems such as the Gaza crisis or will denounce a new attempt on his life.
During his ten-year government Chavez has imposed on Venezuelans 2,700 hours of national hookups or cadenas, as they are called locally, in a shocking demonstration of abuse of power. Sometimes the cadenas are mercifully interrupted by blackouts, which are becoming more and more frequent due to lack of the necessary investment in new electrical power and distribution infrastructure which, in turn, derives from insufficient income of the electrical distribution company. This company, CADAFE, is technically broke, as only half of its clients have meters, only half of metered clients are billed and only half of billed clients pay, which means that less than 15 percent of the energy distributed is paid for.
Massive transport, with the exception of the still effective Caracas Metro, is highly unreliable. Waiting for a bus is an exercise in patience or, even, hope. Once inside the bus there is no guarantee that the trip will be completed, as they tend to break down with great frequency. If there were a term that could define the life of a Venezuelan today, it would be “unpredictable”. Venezuelans start out from their homes in the morning and do not know if they return in one piece. Everyday is a lottery and, often, an adventure.
Traveling abroad can be a heroic enterprise. Taking an international 9 a.m. flight out of Caracas means getting up at 4 a.m. to be at the airport with plenty of time to go through the slow and often inefficient police and customs staff. The traveler is never certain that something wrong will not be found with his/her documents, an eventuality that usually calls for a last minute bribe to be able to depart. The existing foreign exchange controls limit Venezuelans to a dollar quota of $2,500 per year for foreign travel. Exchange controls have generated significant corruption, as Venezuelans have to bribe government bureaucrats in order to get more dollars at the official exchange rate. The alternative would be to buy them in the black market, at more than twice the official rate.
Once abroad Venezuelans are often subjected to especially severe or disdainful treatment. Since the country is now a major drug distributing center and even some government organizations, including the armed forces, are involved in the trade, many travelers coming from Venezuela are carefully monitored. My wife and I, although now living in the United States, were singled out at London’s Heathrow airport, from a long line of multiple nationalities, and interrogated in some detail because of our Venezuelan passports. Another reason for being singled out is the increasing links of the Venezuelan government with international terrorism. The alignment of President Chavez with Iran, Syria, the Hizballah group and the Colombian FARC terrorists earmark Venezuelan travelers as potential “bad guys”, especially if they are of Arab descent. In oil consuming countries there is a tendency to believe, not without some good reasons, that Venezuela is one of the major culprits for oil becoming so expensive in the recent past and this often makes Venezuelans unwelcome. The authoritarian figure of Hugo Chavez is not seen with kind eyes in most of the developed world and Venezuelans are often (and unjustly) identified with their leader.
No, it is not easy being a Venezuelan in the XXI century. I remember attending the University of Tulsa in the 1950’s and rapidly becoming a favorite of the community, due to my heavy Spanish accent, brown eyes and general exotic look. Today, these very same attributes are the ones that make some of my countrymen/women suspicious when abroad. I remember the United States as a haven for Latin Americans who wanted to study and become educated at its multiple academic institutions. As a result of 9/11, overpopulation and illegal immigration problems, much of the magic cordiality and warmth that I remember enjoying is no longer available to the Venezuelans who have arrived in later years, although it cannot be said that there is open hostility. In most places of the United States the young Venezuelan students are still extremely well treated, often better than in their own country.
DESERVE WHAT THEY GOT
It could be argued that Venezuelans deserve what they got. For decades we lived the grand life of the New Rich, enjoying a very strong and stable currency, traveling to Miami for the weekend to go on shopping sprees or to neighboring Aruba, where some of the most arrogant of my country people would jump into the swimming pools with clothes on and a half full bottle of champagne Crystal, like if there was no tomorrow and the place belonged to them.
Some of our less than desirable traits still include the belief that we are a “special people.” We have a messianic certainty that Venezuelans were created to “liberate” other countries and to fight other people’s battles. We think we live in the belly button of the planet and have an exaggerated sense of the importance of our geopolitical role. It is true that Bolivar, the liberator of five nations, was born in Venezuela and that a disproportionately large percentage of the pioneers of Latin American independence were Venezuelan but, frankly, this only tells us where we came from, not where we are going.
Another unpleasant characteristic of many Venezuelans is their disdain for protocol and good manners. Many of us believe that rules and procedures apply to others but not to us. In public events we will speak well beyond our allotted time since we are convinced that what we have to say is too important. In meeting a queen or the Pope we try to pat them in the back and call them by their first name, exaggerating an equalitarian attitude that can be an asset when used in the proper doses.
A third not so nice characteristic of Venezuelans is vulgar language. This is certainly not restricted to Venezuelans nowadays but we seem to overdo it. In Venezuelan public places, such as restaurants, loud and obscene conversations between Venezuelans of any gender are common, without regard for the right of others to eat in a civilized atmosphere. Civil conversation is frequently taken as a sign of prudery or, even, hypocrisy. I had a friend in my hometown that kept telling me “real men should talk dirty and never use deodorants." He died single. This machismo has been passionately defended by extreme left intellectuals who claim that “vulgar” language is, after all, the language of the common man, the “real” people.
A fourth attitudinal shortcoming of Venezuelans is their reluctance to acknowledge someone else’s success or attributes. My countrymen/women are always ready to criticize others but very slow to compliment. In reply to my articles I receive 10 criticisms for every compliment (I hope this is not what I deserve). I remember growing up in Los Teques, a small Venezuelan town and being the object of much ridicule due to my skinny and ungainly six-foot frame and to my acne. Once I arrived at the University of Tulsa, I only heard words of encouragement. I was able to regain my self-esteem. If I had not left Los Teques I probably would not have been able to develop into a normal, self-confident person.
In spite of these undesirable characteristics Venezuelans possess a bright side that should also be listed since it counterbalances the negative traits mentioned above and have made it possible for us to face today’s trials and challenges with hope in the future.
I believe the best quality of Venezuelans is their sense of humor. It could be argued that this sense of humor has often served to lull Venezuelan society into lassitude at moments in history when it should have been more pro-active, but there is no doubt that our sense of humor has allowed us to face misfortune in good spirits. At the danger of over-simplification I believe this is due to our lack of what Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life” (El sentido trágico de la vida). We refuse to take life seriously. I still don’t know if this is a quality or a shortcoming but I am almost sure that it has made it possible for my countrymen/women, to live a happier life. Very few Venezuelans commit suicide. Even funerals lack the somber quality that they possess in more solemn societies. In Venezuela a wake (un velorio) is as good an occasion as any to share the newest joke, piece of gossip or political rumor. In fact the deceased would have known that this was coming, as he/she had participated (actively) in similar affairs many times in the past. Coffee, in the wee hours of the morning often becomes laced with rum or cognac and it becomes increasingly difficult for the mourners to keep a straight face. Venezuelan sense of humor is especially good at taking the sting out of the daily miseries we have to suffer, due to bad government. Humor is one powerful way to liberate sentiments of protest and this probably explains why we have had dictators in power for so long. As a geologist I know that a major earthquake will not take place as long as thousands of very minor tremors liberate the energy that otherwise would create the big one. Venezuelans joke away their frustrations and penuries and, in doing so, spend much of the energy that would allow them to change their condition.
The second quality that I have seen at work in my country is equalitarian sense. We feel at ease in presence and company of the rich and the poor alike. This is no small attribute and certainly makes life much more enjoyable. During my already long and happy life I have had the opportunity of seeing 15 presidents at work in my country. Of these, only two, Marcos Perez Jimenez and Hugo Chavez have been authoritarian, abusive leaders. All the rest have been highly democratic civilians, without imperial or monarchic pretensions. I shook hands, at one time or another, with ten of them and seriously drank together with one.
But this quality is not restricted to people in positions of high power. It is something that can be seen in daily life, at all levels of society (with the exception of small pockets of elitism in some cities like Caracas and Valencia). People mostly address each other on a first name basis, not as a sign of disrespect but as a genuine sign of equalitarian feelings. I remember that the most formal treatment petroleum workers ever used in talking to me was “Dr. Gustavo,” an affectionate but erroneous treatment since I was not a doctor, just a geologist.
Although never belonging to the upper classes, in the economic sense, I never had any problems accessing all Venezuelans, high and low, whenever I wished. Everybody could choose freely his or her group of friends, of course, but no one was excluded from participation because of economic or social status, as long as it had something to contribute. Those who did not have the money were often included because of their talent. I must admit, however, that political exclusion has been for many years an acute problem in Venezuela, one that prevented large sectors of the population from participating fully in the decision-making processes of the nation. This problem, in fact, is still very much present in Chavez’s Venezuela.
TALENT AND PERSEVERANCE
The equalitarian sense of Venezuelans has made for very porous social boundaries. Talent and perseverance have frequently made up the path to wealth and/or social status. Many Venezuelans have become accepted at the highest levels of society without having to become wealthy or politically powerful. Famous writers, university professors, scientists, humorists, sportsmen and musicians have become revered in life without ever leaving the ranks of the middle-middle class: poet Aquiles Nazoa, composer Inocente Carreño, writers Antonio Arraiz, Mariano Picon Salas, Mario Briceño Iragorry and Alejandro Garcia Maldonado, poet Andres Eloy Blanco, novelist Romulo Gallegos, scientists Enrique Tejera and Arnoldo Gabaldon are only a few of the notable Venezuelans who excelled at their work while belonging to a brilliant middle class that became the main characteristic of twentieth century Venezuela.
The third quality I admire in my countrymen is their well-developed sense of social solidarity. I must qualify this statement by saying that this sense of social solidarity is the greatest among the poorer segments of the population. The poor tend to be more generous with their time and money than the rich and the upper-middle class. In particular, the Venezuelans from small towns and rural communities are the salt of the earth, always ready to help and to be kind to those who are down on their luck. They look upon others as part of an extended family. Growing up in Los Teques I remember our neighborhood as a place where we could eat in any house, play with any children and be protected by non-related adults as if we were their own.
A fourth enjoyable quality of Venezuelans is their ear for music and an almost genetically acquired ability to play instruments. Many families have violins, drums, guitars and cuatros (small, ukulele-like, four string guitars) in their closets, ready to be used at the earliest opportunity. Serenading is still common in smaller cities and towns. This musical ability made it possible for Jose Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan musician and economist, to start, 30 years ago, a program to teach classical music to poor children. Today there are almost half a million Venezuelan youth in this program and one of it many products, 27-year old Gustavo Dudamel, is the musical director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A Venezuelan cuatro player, playing in a town restaurant, will easily go from playing a folkloric air from the Venezuelan plains into a Bach-like fugue. In fact, I have a recording of such a hybrid, the beautiful air from Bach’s second suite for strings, suddenly converted into a seis por derecho, a variety of the Venezuelan joropo, the traditional folkloric air of the plains.
FULL OF HOPE
It is not easy being a Venezuelan in today’s world. And yet, I look at our future full of hope. As poet Robert Browning once said, and Frank Sinatra repeated much later, I firmly believe: “The best is yet to come."
I am sure that, at this very moment, a child is being born in a small Venezuelan village that will live out his/her life in happiness, justice and prosperity.
Gustavo Coronel, a 28-year oil industry veteran, was a member of the first board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and is the author of several books. He wrote this column for Latin Business Chronicle.
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