In the Land of the Master Chess Player

I’m in the land of the Master Chess Player, Franco reminds me. It’s sunset and we’re a few kilometers outside of Barquisimeto, Venezuela after a dizzying trip filming in just a small part of western Venezuela which took us, among other places, through the home state of President Hugo Chavez.

I’m in the land of the Master Chess Player, Franco reminds me. It’s
sunset and we’re a few kilometers outside of Barquisimeto, Venezuela
after a dizzying trip filming in just a small part of western Venezuela
which took us, among other places, through the home state of President
Hugo Chavez. We’ve passed through and taped interviews in Carora,
called the “first socialist city” of Venezuela, then dipped down into
Sanare to visit and tape in agroecological coops before winding through
the eastern edge of the Andes to Guanare, the nondescript capital of
Portuguesa where stayed the night before heading through Chavez’s home
state of Barinas. Finally, we drove over the mountains and through the
eerie paramo, testing our brakes on the descent into Merida, in the
heart of the Andes, where we premiered my movie on Venezuela to a small
audience of friends and others in the community and also where we’ve
left Ari to do his own explorations.

All along the way, we’ve passed through numerous alcabalas,
or checkpoints. These checkpoints, manned by the National Guard and
state police, are a new phenomenon, but I didn’t think to ask Franco
about them. Franco, who has been driving my co-director on a new movie,
Ari Krawitz, and me around in his Chevy Blazer, has a method for
getting through the checkpoint without being stopped and it’s worked
well all but once: we roll the tinted windows of his Chevy Blazer down
and smile at the guardsmen and, when they see our innocent expressions,
we pass through without a problem. The one time we were stopped the
guardsman merely checked Franco’s papers, Ari’s and my passports and
visas, and then waved us on when he saw we had nothing in the vehicle
but suitcases and cameras.

I assumed that the checkpoints were part of new security measures
in Venezuela, and in a sense they are, but they date back, as Franco
tells me, to August of last year (2007). The subject of the checkpoints
comes up incidentally as we pass by La Pastora Sugar Mill in the state
of Lara, just across the border from Trujillo.

La Pastora is one of the bigger sugar companies in Venezuela and
it’s dead center in one of the largest extensions of sugar cane fields
I’ve seen, an area that reminds one of Nebraska with its endless

As we drive past the sugar mill belching a large plume of grey
smoke, Franco waves his hand out the window at the miles of sugar cane
extending in every direction. “How is it possible that we had a
shortage of sugar here?” he asks with more than a slight tinge of anger
in his voice.

I shrug. “You had a shortage of sugar?”

He looked at me with alarm. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear about
it,” he said, “yes, sugar — and milk and oil. And even, for a time,
coffee, believe it or not. All this went to Colombia, and then we had
to buy it all back.”

I ask him to explain.

“It happened last year just before the referendum. Polar, Alfonso
Rivas y Compañia, Cargill and some other companies related to Purina
and others, were sending all this stuff out of the country to be sold
at market prices in Colombia. You see, the prices were being controlled
here in Venezuela to make food available and affordable to working
people. So what happened was these companies sent all this out,
truckload after truckload: caravans of all this food, into Colombia.
And we had to buy it all back.”

We pass through another alcabala where there is a National
Guard truck with an x-ray machine and a conveyor belt attached. We
dutifully roll down the tinted windows and turn off the air
conditioner. We’re hit with a blast of dry air as we smile at the
guards, who smile back, and then wave us through.

The overriding reason the corporations shipped food to Colombia
was, of course, profiteering: a liter of milk sold in a transitional
socialist economy won’t command the same price as the same liter sold
in Colombia’s “free trade” capitalist markets. But there was also a
political reason, and that was the referendum of December 2, Chávez and
the Bolivarian Revolution’s first electoral defeat. The shortages,
engineered by the very same opposition which decried them, then blamed
them on Chávez, ironically boosted dissatisfaction sufficiently to
defeat the initiatives for the further socialization of the economy.
The referendum lost by less than one percentage point.

Franco waves his hand in front of him again. “Chavez is a plainsman
and he has a long vision. He’s a great chess player who turns defeats
into victories. And so he set up these checkpoints to stop what was
really highway robbery by the big corporations, and then he began to
nationalize the food industries.”

We stop for a cup of espresso at a roadside restaurant, Las
Sabanetas, between Carora and Barquisimeto. I recognize the massive
hallway of food shops that offer snacks, the typical Venezuelan food, arepas,
guava paste candy, exotic fruit juices, and everything else, including
statues of Maria Lionza, the Venezuelan goddess, and the local
Chaplinesque doctor/saint with a little mustache and dressed in an odd
black suit with tie and hat, Jose Gregorio Hernandez. This is the same
mall in the middle of nowhere which the all-night Caracas to Merida bus
visits at one in the morning, just in time to wake passengers up for a
midnight coffee or a snack.

Franco orders a small black espresso and a small espresso with milk, a café marrón.
He dumps a packet of sugar in each of the two little plastic cups, the
sizes of large thimbles. I ask him if there are still shortages. He

“Not any more. Not since Chavez started nationalizing the food
companies. Lacteos Los Andes, which represents over forty percent of
the market in milk and milk products, is now state owned. He also
created Pedeval, a PDVSA (Venezuela Petroleum Company) project which
buys food from overseas and sells it here in Venezuela at very low
prices. Then, to give a little to the capitalists, he also raised the
maximum price for milk and suddenly there was milk everywhere. So he
used the carrot with one hand, and the stick with the other.”

We slam down our coffees, stop by the bathroom to recycle the
previous cups, and then we hit the road again. It’s a race against time
as the sky darkens and still Barquisimeto seems so far away. We’d hoped
to arrive by six but have been slowed down on the highway by a caravan
of trucks loaded with green plantains. Franco puts his foot on the gas
and we barrel along into the twilight.

“The bottom line is that you’ve got to be a masochist to be a
businessman in the opposition,” he says as we drive into Barquisimeto.
It’s nearly dark and Franco has notoriously bad night vision. That,
combined with a pair of weak headlights, has me on edge as we weave
into town. He tries to stay in his lane and look for our hotel at the
same time, and then he sees the big cement factory. A car, which has
nearly rear-ended us, convinces Franco to put on his emergency blinkers
as we drive along the service road of the highway. Franco mutters
something in Italian and then points to the cement factory we just

“Look at that. Smart business people know they can do good business
with Chavez,” he says. Someone honks at us and quickly passes, the roar
of an engine temporarily drowning out Franco’s words. “If they push too
hard and disrupt the country with another attempt at a golpe
(coup) then he nationalizes them. Otherwise, if they cooperate with the
new socialist economy, they win and make their money. Either way he has
stopped them at the checkpoints.”

“That may be true, Franco, but then, what makes this a “socialist” economy?” I ask.

To my dismay, Franco takes his eyes off the road to look at me.
“Making food, housing and education accessible to all as a top
priority. Profit has to be a second priority,” he replies.

Check, mate.

Clifton Ross represented the U.S. in the Second World Poetry Festival of Venezuela in 2005 and his book of poems in Spanish, Traducir el Silencio, is forthcoming with Editorial Perro y Rana. Ross's movie, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out has just been released by PM Press and can be ordered at www.pmpress.org or www.progressivefilms.org. Clif can be reached at: [email protected]. Read other articles by Clifton

Source: Dissident Voice