Venezuela: A Country Seeking to Define Itself against the U.S.

On the surface, Venezuela seemed to have become much more independent and combative towards its northern neighbor. However, on closer inspection, one senses a much more ambiguous and contradictory attitude.

I have just returned from a fruitful six week trip to Venezuela, where I interviewed people from across the political spectrum.  The country is in the midst of cultural and political ferment and in many ways is trying to seek greater autonomy from the United States.

Though I spent almost a year in Venezuela in 2000-2001, I had not returned to the country since that time and physically Caracas looked quite different from what I remembered.

Walking around Caracas, I was struck by the anti-imperialist murals which had proliferated throughout the city.  One particularly jarring mural depicts an image of Uncle Sam wielding a dagger reading “CIA.”

There is no face underneath the hat, just a bare skull.

Later, as I walked inside the Venezuelan National Assembly, I spotted an interesting exhibit: a series of billboards, each one displaying a key, separate date in the history of U.S. interventions in Latin America.

One billboard discussed the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 under George Bush Senior and the bombing of the civilian population in El Chorrillo, a poor district of Panama City.

On a separate trip I visited Catia, a district located on the outskirts of Caracas.  There, I toured a so-called “Endogenous Center of Development,” where working class women had organized themselves into a cooperative. The women were busily working on sewing machines, producing red T-shirts.

Peering closer, I glimpsed an image on the shirts: a profile of the famous Communist revolutionary and arch nemesis of the United States, Che Guevara.

Back in my Caracas hotel room, I was struck by the stridently anti-U.S. tone on state run media.  On my last trip several years ago, state TV routinely aired Chavez’s anti-imperialist broadsides against the United States.

But since then, in response to Washington’s support for the Venezuelan opposition and the neo-conservatives’ relentless demonization of Chavez, which has gone so far as to label Chavez a modern day Adolf Hitler, the tone on state TV had become more shrill.

Again and again on ViveTV, a state run station, the channel would broadcast a short segment showing stark, bombed out images of Iraq. “Imagine if your city was invaded and destroyed by a foreign army,” intoned a solemn voiceover.

Vive TV is designed to instill a sense of cultural pride in ordinary Venezuelans.  Under Chavez, there has been a great drive towards cultural autonomy as a means of counterbalancing the pervasive influence of U.S. media (for a more in depth discussion of the issue, see my recently released book from St. Martin’s Press, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To the U.S.).

On Vive, I watched intellectual round table discussions on such themes as Venezuela’s cultural and political relationship to the African continent. But the station also specialized in cinema verité style footage of rural life in the Venezuelan plain or llano.

At one point I saw a long segment with no narration showing poor farmers making blocks of cheese.  During another segment, I watched as young Venezuelans danced the joropo, a traditional dance common in the plain.

On the surface, Venezuela seemed to have become much more independent and combative towards its northern neighbor.  However, on closer inspection, one senses a much more ambiguous and contradictory attitude.

Venezuelans have strong cultural ties to the United States, and one is struck by the gigantic U.S. style shopping malls in the capital of Caracas. Centro Comercial Sambil, a shopping complex in the area of Chacao, boasted several floors chock full of U.S. fast food chains such as Pizza Hut, Wendy’s and KFC.

There were two movie theaters screening the latest summer fare from Hollywood, including The Da Vinci Code and The Poseidon Adventure.  During my stay in Caracas, I visited Sambil several times and the entrance to the mall was frequently so clogged with people that it was difficult to walk.

Compared to other Latin American countries that I have traveled to, Venezuela seems to have more of an insatiable desire for the trappings of U.S. consumerism.  On the crass private TV stations, which provide a bizarre daily contrast to Chavez’s state TV, commercials advertise the latest U.S.-style consumer products.

In the Andean city of Mérida, I interviewed one state politician from Chavez’s MVR (Movimiento Quinta República, or Fifth Republic Movement) party. A flamboyant former guerilla fighter during the 1960s, he tried to get me to come to a Chavista meeting where I could acquire a red beret.  He insisted that Venezuela was becoming less culturally dependent on the United States.

“Now we don’t drink so much Pepsi Cola, we’re drinking more guarapo!” he exclaimed, referring to a delicious Venezuelan drink made from sugar cane juice.

On the other hand, during my entire six week stay I did not see anyone drinking guarapo, though many drank soda pop from the United States.  In Caracas, I used to buy guarapo from a street vendor.  He had a special machine that would grind up the sugar cane.  When I returned he was no longer there.

Billboards throughout Caracas display cosmetic ads depicting European and white looking women.  One hears American pop music everywhere and I found Venezuelan youth to be very knowledgeable about the latest musical trends from the U.S.

Meanwhile, commercial ties with the U.S. could not be better.  Though the oil companies may grouse about higher royalty taxes and the government’s move to create “mixed companies” in which the state company, PdVSA, holds a majority stake, the vast majority of companies do not wish to be frozen out of one of the most lucrative oil markets in the world.  Accordingly they have chosen to stay and do business in Venezuela.

Given the acrimonious war of words between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Bush administration, I expected to encounter a high degree of anti-Americanism.  Some hard core Chavez supporters still decried the Bush administration’s funding of the opposition and Washington’s alleged role in the April 2002 coup.  Surprisingly however, many others who I spoke with seemed unconcerned about the prospect of further U.S. meddling.

As an American, I never felt any hostility from the population, even in poor urban areas where Chavez’s support was strongest.

On the other hand, it’s clear that opposition and antipathy to Washington is spreading. One manifestation of this is the growing number of anti-U.S. protests in Caracas.

Chavez has been a vocal critic of the recent Israeli assault on Lebanon and U.S. support for Israel.  Recently, anti-war demonstrators marched through the capital, protesting the war in Lebanon.

Caracas has also been the frequent scene of protests against the U.S. war in Iraq.  The demonstrations have been organized by Chavez supporters. However, even within the opposition antipathy towards the war in Iraq is growing.

In the offices of the anti-Chavez political party Primero Justicia, located conveniently at the Chacaito metro stop in Caracas, I interviewed the general secretary, Gerardo Blyde.  At party headquarters the situation was chaotic, as the opposition was in the midst of trying to select a candidate to run against Chavez in the December presidential election.

Primero Justica has received U.S. financial support through the National Endowment for Democracy, and I expected Blyde to unconditionally support U.S. foreign policy.  But when I pried, Blyde, who had slicked back hair and was dressed in a dapper blazer, was very circumspect about the war in Iraq.

“I’m not a Republican,” he told me, “we don’t like the war.”

Though Blyde derided Chavez for frontally attacking the U.S. on the Iraq issue (he personally would have preferred to bring up the issue in a more diplomatic and collective fashion at such international bodies as the United Nations), nevertheless he declared that his party’s official policy was against the war.

Given the long standing political, economic, and cultural ties between the United States and Venezuela, my guess is that Chavez’s anti-imperialist speeches and state media will have little impact on most Venezuelans’ views of their northern neighbor.

However, one cannot discount the possibility that the neo-conservatives in Washington will succeed in squandering much of the historic goodwill that has existed between the two nations through bluster, misguided policies, and sheer ineptitude.

Nikolas Kozloff received his PhD in Latin American history from Oxford University and recently published a book about U.S-Venezuelan relations entitled Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (released by St. Martin’s Press)