“Uh! Ah! Chavez no se va!” was everywhere last week when I visited Caracas. What I saw was a sea of red with a big white NO wherever you turned. A NO that signifies the vote against undoing Hugo Chavez’ populist revolution during a referendum election that will take place this Sunday, August 15.
Chavez, Venezuela’s democratically elected leader, is often criticized by many—inside and outside the country—for not being, acting and speaking as the president of a large and resource-rich country should, they say. I wanted to see for myself what the Venezuelan commotion—pro and con—was all about.
Believe it or not, the six little words at the beginning seem to define the latest brouhaha. Although it doesn’t rhyme as in Spanish, the English translation is: Uh! Ah! Chavez is not leaving. And if my five day stay in Venezuela is any indication, then count on the strong possibility that the Revolution will not soon be overturned. In fact, it seems to be consolidating and growing stronger as many of the Chavez-instituted grassroots projects are starting to flower and garner tangible results.
For those doubting my objectivity, I assure that I did witness the SI (or yes) propaganda seen in many Caracas streets and neighborhoods—usually ones that were obviously more upper class, in the economic sense of the word. Also, the SI was prominent on television and radio—including the government owned Channel 8. So expressions for or against the Chavez revolution were readily allowed anywhere and everywhere in a country where many claim freedom of expression is not practiced.
But it was two specific events that convinced me that Hugo Chavez is alive and well in Venezuela and that his populist Bolivarian Revolution is here to stay. First, Friday of last week I had the privilege of traveling up a mountain in a section of Caracas known as La Bandera to experience a “Barrio Adentro” (or inside neighborhood) project. A small group of us were taken up very narrow dirt roads where one wrong turn, or a slip on the lip of a curve meant a sure death in a tumbling SUV.
The higher up we went, the more depressing conditions looked: small dilapidated housing made of red brick and anything one can find, dirt floors and no water or electricity. What seemed like tiny, little houses extended outward into other houses built one on top of the other, all constructed as a child might while playing with any sort of building blocks you get in toy stores.
“You see that place,” pointed our leader, “you may have 15 people living in that one room home.” The tall Venezuelan nodded, as people looked inside our vehicle from windows, doors and the street. Most nodded back. They knew him, I understood.
If not for our guides, we were told, we might not have returned in one piece—or not at all. At least at one time not too long ago. I believed it.
Our leader, as I will refer to him, seemed to command respect in this place. Tall, young and strong, he did not seem the type to mess with either.
“In this place is where the devil lost his revolver,” another of our guides informed us. He referred to a friend as “masca clavo” (nail chewer). We immediately dubbed him the real Masca Clavo, because if this dude was not from this area, he surely had lived in some similar one in Caracas—probably rowing up.
At the top we found a relatively new Mercal, stores started by the Chavez government when the old oligarchy decided to paralyze the country’s economy during the time of the petroleum strike. The stores have stayed and prospered. Now you can purchase food for up to three times less than what you’re used to paying. Prices at Mercal are marked up 10 percent, we were told. And with the profits they keep providing affordable food for those who once may not have been able to afford to eat.
Right next to the food store stood the brick, two story bunker at the highest point of the mountain. The first floor serves as the area’s clinic. On the second floor is where the doctors—most from Cuba—live. It is a Spartan lifestyle. “But the view is incredible,” the local orthodontist, a young woman from Guantanamo, told me. And the panoramic view of the city really was breathtaking—and telling: luxury, normal city streets, humbling poverty, and beautiful views of the mountains all in front of us living side by side.
“I just hope that more Venezuelan doctors join us on our mission to help these people,” the young Cuban orthodontist with the sweet smile and soft voice explained to me. The comment was telling and part of the reason for the current situation. Also the fact that for many in that neighborhood, it was the first time they had ever visited a doctor of any kind.
Our leader stood next to me at the top and pointed down. “You see the water tower on the right?” he asked. “And then to the left at that yellow building… that is my area,” he announced to me proudly. “There are 79,000 people in this area that at one time had been excluded.
“Under Comandante Chavez,” he continued with stern but friendly face, “they are being taken care of. They are aware that someone cares.”
As we left, rolling down the hill, he suddenly stopped. Out stepped a voluptuously attractive woman with dark, brown skin and fine-featured face. Asked what she would do if Chavez was to lose the Sunday referendum, she meditated for a second and answered:
“I don’t believe he will lose,” she stated calmly. “Past presidents represented the top layers of our society… now we have a president who represents us. We will not abandon him.”
Two days later, on Sunday, I finally understood what she meant. Out of streets and highways, mountains and hills, Caracas seemed overtaken by hordes of people dressed in red and carrying signs, flags, and banners with the word NO on them. Laughter and happiness dominated their faces. And all were headed in the same direction: Bolivar Avenue were El Comandante Chavez would be speaking.
I’ve been to marches before. Never this big. Here in Miami, organizers of the Calle 8 Street Festival held every year claim that nearly one million revelers enjoy this day-long event. I’ve been to several. If Calle 8 gathers a million, two and three times as many people were gathering on this Caracas Boulevard to hear their leader speak. And speak he did, for more than three hours.
Chavez sang, recited poetry, lectured and spoke in ways that I had heard people criticize him for in the past. And standing in front of the structure where he spoke I finally understood: the people listening, his people, understood every word he said. He was speaking to them. He understood them. And he was there to help them.
Many may ridicule Chavez, but these people love him. Because he cares for them.
And in the end, his message was clear: !Uh! !Ah! !Chavez no se va!