The Lies About Venezuela

The food court at a mall in Caracas, 2006 (Liliana Amundaraín/Flickr)

The food court at a mall in Caracas, 2006 (Liliana Amundaraín/Flickr)

In terms of debate, no nation in Latin America is shrouded by more skewed information than my paternal homeland, Puerto Rico. Venezuela comes in a close second, however.

I was in my patria mater Honduras (another contentious topic) during the first week of this month, and so I was fortunate enough to miss the initial chatter concerning a video produced by Flama, in which writer-producer Joanna Hausmann, who graduated from a Caracas school, gives an unabashedly anti-Chavista explanation for the economic crisis in Venezuela:

Hausmann’s view, though extremely annoying, is also extremely common. The average Latino American knows very little about Venezuela, but that doesn’t keep him or her from forming (and voicing) a solid opinion on the political and economic crises ravaging the Bolivarian Republic. Most lay the blame for food and energy shortages entirely in the lap of Chavismo and its socialistic experimentation. As always, the mainstream media gleefully reports on the situation (or its version of it) as proof that socialism is too confining an economic system to ever be a credible alternative to a laissez-faire market economy — otherwise known as capitalism.

What’s rarely mentioned is that Venezuela may have barely survived (we hope) its worst drought in 47 years, an update which appears more remarkable after considering that over 70 percent of the country’s energy needs is supplied by hydroelectric power stations like the one at the Guri Dam, where the water level plunged to historic lows this past spring. Rarer still is any talk of the bachaqueros who raid supermarkets and buy up all of the price-controlled staples, only to resell them on the black market for up to 50 times the original price.

No more than a few days after my return from the Palm Oil Republic, a colleague of mine passed along the Flama video, hoping to get the reaction from me which it inevitably did. “That is making the rounds,” he informed me, “and young Latinos think it is truth.” (He really knows how to stoke the fire underneath me.)

Grudgingly I was going to write a response to the video, but, lucky for me, Professor Gabriel Hetland of University at Albany, SUNY has already beat me to the punch, providing as good a corrective to the popular narrative as any in an article published by the Nation last Wednesday:

Within days of my arrival to Caracas a few weeks ago it became clear that while life in Venezuela is far from normal, and many are suffering from the crisis, mainstream media images of a country in utter disarray are clearly overstated. Far from being empty, Caracas’s streets and highways exhibit the same pattern of heavy car and foot traffic found in other large Latin American cities. The metro feels as crowded as ever. Restaurants in the affluent neighborhood of Las Mercedes are jam-packed and have been for weeks, according to friends who live in the neighborhood. The shelves of private supermarkets in Las Mercedes and other affluent neighborhoods are full, with plentiful chicken, cheese, and fresh produce. The Wendy’s down the block from the apartment I’m staying in has been full most times I’ve passed it, including on a rainy Sunday night when a steady stream of customers passed through. Beer has not disappeared (and will be available for at least the rest of this year). And I’ve even had multiple Coca-Cola sightings.

There are other signs Venezuela is not ‘in a state of total collapse.’ No one I’ve spoken to has positive things to say about public hospitals, which are seen as corrupt, understaffed, and lacking supplies, which hospital staff allegedly steal and resell. Yet, I’ve heard abundant praise for, and more measured critiques of, free public health clinics (Centro Diagnóstico Integral, or CDIs) and physical therapy centers (Salas de Rehabilitación Integral, or SRIs), which are open throughout Caracas and in cities in the interior. Several opposition supporters from Petare, one of the largest barrios in Latin America, told me of a CDI they go to ‘that provides a really great service.’ I visited a sparkling-clean SRI in Carora, a city of 100,000 in the central-western state of Lara. The center (one of four in the city, all of which are open) treats 80 to 100 patients a day, and I was told all machines were in working order. Ramón Suárez, a backup Lara state assemblyperson for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), has been receiving near-daily treatment at this SRI since suffering a hand injury in December. He told me, ‘Without the SRI I couldn’t have recovered,’ explaining that treatment in private clinics costs 3,000-4,000 bolivares a visit. This would have consumed almost all of Suárez’s salary of 80,000 bolivares/month, which is almost triple the minimum wage (approximately 15,000 bolivares/month plus 18,000 bolivares in food tickets).

The Times’s assertion that ‘huge areas of the country have spent months with little’ electricity is belied by the facts. In April the government took a series of measures to combat an electricity crisis, caused by Venezuela’s worst drought in 47 years, and extremely low electricity rates, which led Venezuela to have the region’s highest per capita electricity consumption. To restore water levels in the Guri dam, which supplies roughly 70 percent of Venezuela’s power, the Maduro administration closed select government offices for one, and then three, days a week; closed schools on Fridays; and rationed electricity in most the country outside Caracas. As of last week, government offices are again open five days a week, albeit on a reduced schedule (8 am-1 pm). Schools are again open on Fridays. Electricity rationing, which occurs for three hours a day on a rotating schedule in interior states (meaning electricity is and has been available for twenty-one hours a day in these areas), remains in effect during the week but no longer on weekends, and may soon end altogether. The government says these recent changes (which bring Venezuela back to a state of semi-normalcy when it comes to electricity) are possible because of the success of rationing, which, alongside recent rains, has allowed water levels in the Guri dam to return to near-normal levels.

I’d recommend anyone searching for an alternative assessment on developments in Venezuela to visit venezuelanalysis.com, as well as a pair of excellent summaries by Peter Bolton, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (this one and this one).

My comments should end here, but I can’t help adding a note on the Maduro administration and the state of Chavismo. Since the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela suffered a heavy defeat against the opposition in elections late last year, the accepted wisdom is that the PSUV is on its way out, the president is in his labyrinth, and the Chavistas have become just another version of the Communists in Cuba or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua — revolutionaries turned tyrants (a criticism I don’t fully agree with in any case).

Rather than leave you believing the lies told by the mainstream media about Chavismo and its discontents, I’ll end with another quote, this one by Myriam Gimenez, a grassroots activist who was asked by Professor Hetland why she continued her support for Chavismo:

Because it’s not a lie that 3 million senior-age Venezuelans are receiving a pension that’s worth minimum wage. When Chávez got to power, not even 300,000 seniors received a pension, and the pension wasn’t even a fifth of the minimum wage. It’s not a lie that schools opened to all children with a meal every day.… It’s not a lie that they opened more opportunities for studying at the university level. And it’s not a lie that education at all levels is free, totally free. Oh, but this education has errors, we don’t doubt it. It’s part of a [process in] construction.… It’s not a lie that healthcare, with all the problems we have right now with the dollar, and the import of medicines…that they’ve provided a space for healthcare in all of our communities. It’s not a lie that our citizens with disabilities, who were rendered totally invisible before, they didn’t have machines to treat their disabilities, now we have physical therapy centers, and today [people with disabilities] are prioritized in terms of jobs, and for many things. It’s not a lie, and I’ve lived it, that people in our rural zones lived in straw houses with mud roofs…and now there are real houses in our rural zones, and not just in our rural zones, but in the urban zones, the million and some houses that have been constructed are a reality.… There’s still much to do, but this is a reality…. And it’s not a lie that in any street corner you go to, people will talk to you about politics, about what’s happening, about the international situation, if they participated or not, if the communal council stole the money or didn’t steal the money. There’s a political participation that can’t be hidden.

Now you know.

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Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and journalist. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.

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