Red color, red paint splashed over white background, against which is a photo of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Underneath it says: “Chavez from his heart.”
“Chavez died, had fallen…” A man, an acquaintance, who is driving me around Caracas, tells me. “But this is not the end. Maduro was his adopted son… Not his real son, but his ideological child, his heir. This red color symbolizes blood. Chavez spilled his blood for his people. Foreign imperialists murdered him, maybe with the help of local elites. And now Maduro will carry on.”
There is an Argentinean food festival at the hotel where I am staying. A steak that would cost some 10 dollars in Buenos Aires goes here for US$100 at official exchange rate, or at US$20 if the money is changed on the black market.
“Son of a bitch!” swears elegantly dressed and moderately pissed-drunk local businessman. “May he drop dead, shitty faggot”. That’s regarding Maduro. Then comes long tirade, this time pointed at deceased President Hugo Chavez. The speech is full of colorful variations on defecation, elaborate sexual acts (some involving farm and domestic animals) and homosexuality. Two ladies, elegantly dressed, wearing high heels and skin color stockings despite the heat, are laughing loudly. They are nodding enthusiastically, in full agreement with their red-faced caballeros.
I try not to listen, but the words are shouted so loudly, they are hard to ignore. I can hear expressions like ‘bus driver’ and ‘imbecile’; that’s as they go back to discussing current President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro.
It all suddenly reminds me of Guatemala, many years ago, when Rigoberta Manchu had been awarded Nobel Peace Price, instantly becoming a target of the most outrages ridicule and racism, being described by the Central American elites as ‘that indigenous, fat and dumb bitch’, publicly, repeatedly, and loudly.
Venezuela is deeply divided. It seems to be at the edge, uncertain, angry and most obviously not at peace with itself.
One of the executives of pan-American television channel TeleSur, based in Caracas, Andreina Perez, explained to me: “I can say that Chavez survived his death and converted himself into an ideological concept. Now it became inevitable that whichever leader of Venezuela will be compared to him, and it will be very difficult to find a match. Therefore, there is this huge vacuum left after he departed, as well as great disorder inside the country. I feel that we were left as orphans; like children who lost their father.”
But Andreina is what could be described as ‘cautious’ optimist:
“I believe that at some point the country will settle on a course that will be less progressive and less radical, but acceptable to the majority. I continue to be positive, thinking that we will be able to join forces, between the left and the right, between what is public and what is private, that we would all manage to cooperate. But I fear that would only happen after some enormous social turmoil… You have to understand: the political climate here is presently very tense…”
It surely is. As I am walking from a local shopping mall to my hotel, a mighty SUV stops at the curb, and the door flies open. A man wrapped in bright colors of Venezuelan flag is sitting at the wheel.
“Are you lost, sir?” He screams at me, huge smile on his face. He does not wait for the answer: “Please hop in, I will be happy to give you a lift!”
As he tells me just a few seconds later, he is an air force captain. “I fly fighter jets, defending my country.”
I nod and thank him.
“Are you American?” he continues smiling.
I quickly think what to say. There is my US passport resting in an equipment bag. I was born in Russia. And I live in Japan, among several other places. ‘It is always good to have choices’, I think.
I return his smile and say neutrally: “I was born in Russia”.
He stops the car. He gives me big hug. “Welcome to my country, brother”, he shouts. “Thank you for coming.” His eyes slide to my big professional camera. “And thank you for searching for the truth!”
He really drives me to my hotel, all the way to the roundabout in front of the entrance. He offers me some chocolates. He is genuine, he reminds me of some medieval knight. He is determined and very patriotic, all that, in some old-fashioned, beautiful way.
Hotel porters are grimacing in mocking and unfriendly fashion, noticing the license plate and the flag. They are black marketers and pimps, buying US dollars and selling local girls. They hate Chavez and they hate the military. They are self-proclaimed ‘businessmen’.
As I am about to leave, the pilot winks at me:
“I thought you were a North American. And I was going to give you a lift, in order to demonstrate that we have nothing against the people of the United States. If they come here as visitors, as friends, we will treat them like brothers. There are many good people living in the United States, and I met several of them … But if they come at us again, to stage another coup, or to attack Venezuela, at that very moment I will get into my cockpit and fight them… I will be ready to die defending my country.”
At the University, at the Engineering Department, a girl, a student, begins to cry when I ask her to talk about Chavez and about Venezuela after his death.
I only showed her my press card, and I asked her whether she thought that the death of Chavez was really a big loss for her country.
She could not utter one single word. She thought for some time how to answer my question, but then she lowered her eyes and I saw tears rolling down her cheeks. Her body began shaking. It was genuine, absolutely real. I put my arm around her shoulder, and she, instinctively, buried her face in my chest, making my shirt wet.
“Read from my tears”, she said much later. “I cannot talk about this. Please forgive me… I simply can’t!”
After we parted, I bought several Cuban and Venezuelan films, including ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ and ‘I am Cuba’. I decided not to ask anybody about Chavez, at least not right away, for some time.
Things were getting raw, exposed, and powerful. But often they were also unsettling. It all felt like an hour before decisive battle.
At the gate, not far from the university metro station, a crowd of student protesters was marching past the police cordon. Demands to end corruption among professorial staff and the university administration were shouted loudly.
But then one of the students I began talking to on the street showed much greater spite for the West than for the university administration:
“Gringos keep talking about opening up Venezuela. But what they mean by ‘opening’ is actually what they were doing in the past, before Chavez – they want to steal all that our land is holding under its surface, especially all those riches hiding in the jungle. Remember, our country is one of the wealthiest places on earth! And I am not talking about crude oil only.”
I boarded the modern, fast, heavily subsidized, and well-organized metro and traveled to one of the new cable car stations, by metrocable system, now connecting main avenues and metro stations with several needy neighborhoods. Red gondolas suspended from the rope were going every few seconds, making several stops on the hills, transporting thousands of poor people. Such ropeways are usually carrying tourists in Europe, United States, or Japan, and they are extremely expensive. Here, the government turned them into public transportation, with only symbolic prices.
And free or almost free were also books, classical music concerts, medical care, and education. Heavily subsidized was housing for the poor, and public transportation, as well as food. In fact entire chains of supermarkets are selling great variety of foodstuff made in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and other ‘friendly nations’. The great classical music orchestras are performing in public places for tens of thousands, and for free.
I sat on the hill of San Agustín del Sur, with two aging people: one locksmith, Senor Carlos, and a seller of flowers, Senora Clara.
Senor Carlos was angry, agitated:
“Look, here, we are having a real war; a war that has been already taking place for many years. Local capitalists do not just want to make profits; they want to make enormous earnings, by stripping poor people alive. They were doing it freely and shamelessly before Chavez, and then, for years, they had been full of hate for him, because he was on our side, defending us. Capitalists here are bandits, they are thieves!”
“Even now, there are all those private companies, like Polar, that are plotting against us, against the poor. They buy things for 2 and sell for 16. The state sells cooking oil for 4, rice for 2. So what do our capitalists do? The same shit as they did to Chile, to Allende, before 1973 coup. They began creating ‘deficit’! They control transportation and distribution and their goal is to make sure that there is no food in the villages and towns, so people get angry, tired, and consequently vote this government out. And the United States is fully behind all this!”
“But they will not be allowed to come back!” shouts Senora Clara. She is looking at me, straight into my eyes, smiling. “Because we will fight for this government, which is the government of the poor, of the real people. Chavez gave me back my own country, ‘mi patria’. He also gave me hope. I was homeless, desperate before. Now I am alive!”
Some neighborhoods are tough, but definitely not hopeless. It is not like those slums in Manila, Jakarta or Nairobi – the capitals of countries that devour their own people and consequently become darlings of the Western regime. There is electricity and there is water, schools and medical posts, above mentioned ropeways and social centers. There is no hunger here, and no malnutrition.
Senor Carlos arrives at the punch line:
“Do you know why they – the rich – hate us so much? Because now we can read, we understand what is really happening around us. We vote for and we read and understand our own Constitution. And Chavez? They detested his determination to allow us to vote for the real candidates, for the candidates who were really ready to represent us. And they hated him for teaching us how to read and how to understand, and how to think! He gave his life for us! They killed him. And now they are trying to destroy Maduro.”
Special commission that includes doctors and scientists is investigating the possibility that President Hugo Chaves Frias had been murdered.
As I move through the city, I see more and more posters that I noticed before, some with the face of Chavez, some with Maduro’s images. Those with red paint, like blood, splashed on white sheet: ‘From the heart of Chavez’. What does it mean? Chavez supporting Maduro, with his own blood! Dying, knowing that he was dying, spilling his own blood for the nation. His blood is now Maduro, his blood is the revolution, El Proceso, and Venezuela.
It is powerful, emotional, beautiful and extremely dangerous.
‘We are all Chavez!’ reads another poster.
Chavez became a martyr, a hero. He was always a hero, loved or hated. But if he was murdered, if it would be proven that he was killed, then Venezuela might experience the most violent period in the modern history of Latin America.
It could become one long and terrible conflict, not unlike that in the neighboring Colombia, which is living as a fully divided nation for endless decades, practically since the period called La Violencia.
That is why so many people are calling for calm. But if the President of Venezuela was killed, then calm could only arrive in the footsteps of justice.
Margot Urdaneta, a teacher, one of the translators of my work to Spanish and a friend, wrote to me in an email:
“I must say that Maduro, our new President, in spite of what many people criticize about him, including some Chavistas – things like that his curriculum includes no university studies, that he used to be a bus driver and an ordinary worker – used to actually be a very successful union leader, and an excellent Vice President and Foreign Minister. In my opinion he will be a good President. First of all, I do not underestimate the wisdom of Chavez; he must have had good reasons for choosing Maduro as his successor. He was at his side even before Chavez was locked in jail, more than 14 years ago. Chavez trained and taught him – and we should never forget that Chavez was a teacher of history at the Military Academy. Maduro is clever, has a fantastic memory and he is utterly loyal to the Commander and his programs and ideals.”
Ms Urdaneta, like so many supporters of El Proceso feels saddened about the outcome of the latest elections:
“We were greatly disappointed with the results. I was expecting we were going to win by millions of votes and we only got about 250 thousand more than Capriles. Of course this fact gave Capriles an opportunity to agitate people. First, he demanded a recount, then cancelled it… On April 15th, one day after the elections, Capriles, during one TV conference, encouraged his supporters to express their “anger” – he used a very obscene expression – tocando cacerolas (‘to bang pots and pans’). This was a direct signal to his violent supporters, specially those youngsters calling themselves JAVU, who are inspired by the right-wing Serbian OTPOR to attack CDI’s (Centros de Diagnóstico Integral), PSUV’s houses, or simply people who were celebrating Maduro’s triumph. Also, there was a Twitter of a Venezuelan journalist “informing” that the Cuban doctors in the CDI’s were hiding boxes with electoral materials… After putting this incendiary and wrong information on the net, the journalist fled to Miami.“
The violence is increasing, according to Ms Urdaneta’s account, written to me at the end of May 2013:
“More than 20 CDI’s and some houses of the PSUV party were burned down; a guy driving a truck hit a group of people that was celebrating the victory in Maracaibo, killing two children. Well… there is no end to the violence; as of today we have 11 people who lost their lives, and more than 70 injured. The leaders of the opposition are mostly from the rich families; many of them have never worked one single day, and never thought about the poor, except when they considered to hiring them as servants.”
I wanted to know how trustworthy are the claims that the opposition is now using the same tactics as those in Chile, before 9-11-1973. She elaborated:
“The opposition is hiding food, sabotaging distribution of electricity, and indeed doing the very same things that led to Allende’s ousting. I know, because my brother was in Chile in 1973, and he fled only a few days before the hell erupted.”
“Our opposition is being grossly manipulated by the Empire’s powerful tools – like you recently said in your wonderful article. Now some Venezuelans, who used to be such kind, friendly, and generous people, are often turning violent and aggressive, hating everything that smells of chavismo.
“You turn on the TV, which is mainly owned by the elites, and all you see now is the violence. I used to enjoy channels such as Film& Arts. Well… some disappeared, as people are only allowed to consume what the Empire is promoting. The opposition with the help of the Empire, the media and money from the rich businesspeople, are trying to make us to lose this war. I want to cry when I am writing this, but even though our present government is working very hard, right now we desperately need more: shrewdness and sense of strategy of Chavez, that none of our leaders seems to have. But it’s understandable; it’s like you told me: impossible that two leaders of the size of Chavez could be born during the same year, in the same country or even in the world. And the words of Goebbels, about repeated lies that become truth, are now relevant more than ever before. Our opposition is repeating lies, over and over again; it feeds the planet with them. Lies about Venezuela, but also about Cuba, because Cuba is one of the countries they hate the most; their doctors are surely going to be thrown out or killed if the opposition grabs the power. And Capriles said that if he becomes President, Cuba would not get one single drop of oil from us.”
Departing from Simon Bolivar Airport is a little bit like an attempt to escape from a well-guarded castle that is continuously under siege. Long lines are everywhere, those for check-in, for meticulous searches, for passport control.
Even before one is actually allowed to check in at an airline counter, all luggage has to be put on the table, where military personnel searches painstakingly through each and every piece of garment, electronics, books. Nothing is left to chance. There is no trust remaining. There was already at least one attempt from the North to overthrow the legitimate government of Venezuela, and many here are convinced that President Hugo Chavez was cynically murdered, that his cancer was caused by biological warfare, part of the merciless drive of the Empire to liquidate all Communist, socialist and progressive leaders now determinately transforming Latin America by resisting imperialism and neo-colonialism.
For centuries, this continent has been enduring all kind of acts of terror inflicted by the Europeans and North Americans: from genocides against its indigenous population to systematic destruction of its culture and identity. Popular governments have been overthrown, trusted and beloved leaders murdered, while the majority of the citizens forced into unimaginable misery. ‘The veins of the continent’, as metaphorically described by great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, ‘were opened’. Now those who are trying to treat the wounds, to heal entire nations often find themselves on the hit list of the Empire.
Jose, a young soldier, is turning my entire suitcase up side down and inside out. It is of course annoying, and those who would want to convert such situations into yet another set of arguments against the present government, would certainly find some inspiration here.
But it is well-known fact that Western intelligence agencies have no scruples blowing up passenger planes in mid air. One can never be too cautious.
“You say you brought your documentary films about Africa to our Venezuelan television channel?” the soldier asks. “Could you show me DVDs of some of your films?”
I do what I am asked to. He searches for my name on the DVD cover, and then compares it with the name inside my passport. They match. But I am beginning to worry about missing my flight.
Then it is over, everything checked, and the young soldier gives me broad smile. “Done!” he says. “Listo… You can go now.”
“Where are you from?” I ask.
I am ready to go. I take few steps towards the door, but then I stop and turn back. I cannot resist asking him one simple question:
“What do you think will happen to Venezuela?”
He does not seem to be surprised. He thinks for a few seconds, and then replies:
“We will be here, don’t worry. And Venezuela will be here.”
“They will not come back, will they?”
He smiles, unexpectedly.
“They…” He says. “They are here from the beginning. They are all around you, all around us…” He nods towards the next table, where a woman in her 60’s wearing heavy make-up argues with another young soldier. He nods at the queue, where several upper class men and women look contemptuously all around, or just staring at their Blackberries and iPhones.
“They never left. But this time, we will not go away either. It is our country. It belongs to the people, to the majority. And if we have to, we will defend it against all enemies…”
He fell silent, probably fearing he could have said too much.
I nod and then I go. Airbus 340 of Air France is waiting at the gate. I don’t want to leave but I have to.
I am certain the soldier wants to go home, to return to his city, to Ciudad Bolivar. But he may have to stay in the capital, and he may have to fight for his country.