The Revolution Inside

From Latin American Odyssey, to a profound investigation of the Bolivarian revolution. Hugo Chavez says: Socialism or Death! Leftists rejoice, and Capitalists squeal. But what do the people of Venezuela think about all of this?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Luxury of Irony

I have a friend in Venezuela, a Belgian friend, from Belgium. He works with the indymedia there. Sounds like a pretty together one, too. Anyway, we were up really late drinking like westerners, and he got to showing me some of his work. He`s a videographer, and he`s made some pretty slick short videos about protests in Belgium... one was a bank action. The bank has interests in some company that produces depleted uranium products. So, a bunch of folks dressed up as biohazard folks and walked into the bank, loudly announcing that they were looking for radiation. It made the bank customers think twice, and the presence of cameras there made it less likely that bank personnel would overreact. In fact, they pretty much let them take their geiger counters around and look for radiation.

He put images together with some sort of funny music, and the result is entertaining, and makes the point about the bank`s involvement in less respectable enterprises.

But what we got to talking about was how he felt like this strategy, his favorite technique, wouldn`t work in Venezuela. He had been spending a week or two with a group of former gang members in Cumana, on the coast. They showed him their guns, let him stay there for a while, told him how this gangs to volunteer projects had turned their lives around. And he says to me: how do I make a short, ironic video, with funny music and shenanigans? That`s because you can`t. It would amount to making fun of them.

And it reminded me of some of the conversations and discussions I`d had in Central America, about how we, folks from privilege, just don`t get it, can`t see the reality. It`s not like everyones depressed all of the time, far from it. People are happy, they joke around, especially in Venezuela. In fact, folks are much less depressed then we are, certainly less likely to be clinically depressed. But the thing is, when people make their life changes down here, the stuff we want to report on, irony doesn`t make sense. Irony is a luxury of being disconnected with suffering. Laughing, on the other hand, is a solution to suffering.

I think the age of irony must die. It`s a solution for cynics, in order to deal with a big bloody world, a world that doesn`t work, especially when you are the beneficiary of some of this luxury (simply meaning you can go to work everyday, you have a car, you shop at a mall, all things that a lower middle class united statesian would take for granted. We´re not talking golden bathtubs and ivory doorknobs). When you´ve gotten an education, and you realize how messed up it all is, and you feel completely powerless, the only way you can acknowledge the situation is by smirking and shrugging it off, or making some wry, intelligent comment.

So, who is more worthy of respect: the cynical political science major with a great record collection, or the ugly street sweeper with 4 fingers on his right hand who doesn`t know too much about Machiavelli, but knows that nothing is going to change if he doesn`t do something. Though he doesn`t have much work, and he drinks too much in the evening, he goes to the campesino organizational meetings, because, you know, he just can`t see any way that things will be different for his children. He can`t see any other way.

Organizing is serious business. It doesn´t mean we can`t laugh, it`s just, when you see suffering, either you distance yourself from it, rationalize, analyze. Or you feel it, and then you have to do something about it. And then we work, in earnest, and save the cynicism for whatever`s on television.

Road Hungry

Out here, they practically grow on trees
You can find them everywhere, even when the landscape is otherwise barren.
It`s a shame there is no way to
Turn them into a crop, or harvest them somehow
And eat them up.

Kilometers are food for cars and bicycles, planes and feet
They eat them up. I guess there are people who have
Found a way to turn kilometers into food, but they own travel agencies
And bus companies. Taxi drivers eat kilometers.

There is no market for kilometers in the United States.
And so, they are left, scattered in the dust of a thousand other countries
In the New York Stock Exchange, there is no symbol for KMS, so that you could call
Your agent and buy low
Or sell high. The exchange rate isn`t that good, either.
1 mile equals 1.61 kilometers, but, the good thing is there`s
No trade policy that`s going to change it. We can be glad that people
Who come from a country where they use the metric system
Will never have to travel 5 times as far to go the same distance in the United States.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

La Vida Dolorita, Part 4 : Burning Judas

La Vida Dolorita, Part 4: Burning Judas

Ok, so if you see a picture of me in church don´t freak out, they didn´t get me – I didn´t eat any flesh or drink any blood. In fact, I was in the Dolorita church twice during this stay – once on Ash Wednesday, and here for resurrection day. It was nice, and a little weird, sort of like old times, back when I was a monaguilla, an altar boy.

For those of you who have never been Catholic, here are some things i feel like commenting on:

--While some people choke on it, I love that holy roman incense they use. I think it´s frankincense. There´s a lot of talk, you know, about Frankincense and Myrrh, but that`s some real stuff. And am I the only one who thinks of Frankenstein when I hear that word?

--The easter candle. There´s so much representation in the catholic church, no wonder it gets a bad rap from protestants about idol worshipping. There´s a large candle that shows up in church on Ash Wednesday, and stays unlit until Easter. When it´s lit, Christ has risen from the dead.

-- Here in Caracas, I don´t know if they do it other places or not, they do this Burning Judas thing. The idea is, people from the neighborhood construct a man out of old clothing people have lying around, and stuff this guy, put him in a chair, and light him on fire on resurrection day. Clearly, this is a purification ritual, and to having this event on the most important holy day of the catholic calendar reminds us of the pagan roots of Christianity. Throughout Europe (not to mention native traditions), you´ll find a lot of burning effigies and bonfire building from spring until harvest time.. because Sun Energy is strong during this time. And specifically for a springtime ritual, it means, lets burn all of the stuff we have left over from the winter, because now we`ve got new things growing. In Caracas, they often name the effigy something symbolic, like "Neoliberalism" or "George Bush" because it`s simpler to just make the connection with fire as a destructive force, rather than a rebirthing thing.

-- When the hell is Easter going to be, you might wonder. The way it works is this: The first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring. That`s it, that`s how they know. Figuring out when Carnival is, you just count 40 days backwards... Carnival, the way it`s celebrated with Fat Tuesday (or Shrove tuesday) and Ash Wednesday appears historically after the whole idea of Lent, 40 days of temptation in the desert. Though there are pagan calendar events throughout the year, I think the whole lent cycle is fairly free of pagan roots.

It´s interesting. Imbolc is the pagan holiday that became candelmas, then became groundhog day. That´s February 2nd. Then, the next pagan holiday is the spring equinox, around march 20th. About 45 days. After that, we get Beltane, a fire burning ceremony, also known as May Day, which later became.... international labor day? I mention this, because I can´t help but wonder if the Spanish colonial associations of Catholicism in Latin America would retain more of the converted pagan rituals, like bonfire burning than we would see in the US, where Catholicism was imported rather than imposed.

--Another representation I like is the way of the cross. If you´ve never been to a Catholic church, cathedral, or basilica, you´ve never seen this, but always along the walls there are pictures, 14 of them, actually. I don´t have them memorized, but I think they´re cool. Symbolically, they represent the trials of the heroe`s journey. If you chew on it for a while, or studied sacred literature, you could find a correspondence between the stations of the cross, and the journeys of Odysseus, or Orpheus, or Captain Ahab. Or Elvis. The pictures chronicle the story from Jesus` arrest in the garden of Gethsemane to the resurrection.

One thing that annoys me is the status of Mary. I mean, too bad she wasn´t divine too, or she might have had a word or two to say to God about this whole business of killing her son and cooking him on a stake because you and everyone else has been bad.

I never noticed this when I was young, but apparently they don´t sing the Gloria for the entire Lenten period. When I heard it last night, it made me think.. I wonder if Van Morrison´s song was a conscious attempt to turn this catholic holy song on it´s head, and make it about a sexy woman.

There are a lot of things in La Dolorita`s church that are very different from the church I went to growing up, which I partly attribute to cultural factors. There was a lot of singing and dancing around, while my church was much more solemn, and well, frankly, boring.

I think this has something to do with the Salesians (even though my church in Tucson was Silesian, too). Silesian is a word which I don´t know what it means, and I doubt I will ever use it again. So, please, take a good look at it.

Lenis and Alexander are like the main music people in the church, they both sing. Their good friend Williams (it`s true what you´ve heard - if your name is William, they always add an "s" at the end. I don´t know if this is some phonological thing, or what, but I know like five Williamses) plays the guitar (he loves Dust in the Wind, man). The songs are kind of country, kind of rock and roll, and if you´ve been to any sort of modern Christian church, you´ve probably come across a similar style.

Musicians from the congregation sing the songs, and it´s not exactly tight… I don´t know, technically, it´s kind of horrible, off key and off tempo. But the spirit is there, and they´re doing it for the community, without fines de lucro. Kind of like community radio. And, so you support them and cheer them on, knowing that they´re giving it up for the community, and its not important if there´s a little feedback when the priest is turning the wine into blood.

And this made me think about how nice it is that you can´t really screw up in this church, you know? They want you to be there, because you´re a nice, fresh soul, and if you get the words wrong… well, they know that if they alienate you, and it´s not fun, people won´t come. Hell- ain´t enough to scare ´em into attendance, because that`s been tried, and there`s enough fear already out there, mostly people probably come to church to escape fear for a change. Which brings up an interesting event. Near the end of the mass, a fellow strode in (the doors are almost always open), and he kind of looked like a street punk in Portland, baseball cap on sideways, ripped pants and dirty clothes. He was talking to himself and had a ragged book in his hand. His eyes had dark circles under them. and he walked right down the middle of the aisle and up in front while the priest was saying goodbye to the flock, and started mumbling words as if he was reading his book. The attendees were clearly nervous and some of them moved to strategic positions to sort of block him. Some people offered him some change. Mostly everyone was a little nervous. I interpreted it as a sign, sort of a test of faith for the people. Not that it wasn´t a potentially dangerous situation, but it sort of broke the festive spirit and put people in the place of those in their own community whose lives are pretty messed up. And I thought of Jesus, who I think was just as divine as you and me, and it occurred to me, that this guy was kind of like the people that Jesus hung out with, you know? The lowest of the low. And it was kind of nice to see one person, Adriani, approach him and start chatting with him without fear. I think that`s prolly what Jesus would have done.

There are lots of good reasons I gave up Catholicism, and Christianity especially. Mostly, it´s symbolically kind of gross - spiritual cannibalism, really, with some very old foundations. I do think the passion, the story of it all can be quite moving on a number of different levels - you know, a divine man-child, who martyrs himself for everyone in the universe. I mean, that´s hardcore. But it´s just not the kind of meaning that I´m looking for in the world these days, and I think a lot of people are the same way.

We need a religion to counter the actual imperial world religion of materialism. Mammon is the true God ruling the planet these days. I´m guessing when Mammon fails to serve us, and humans need other explanations for why things are the way they are, we´ll see a new interpretation of the old symbols. And let´s hope the virgin, this time around, gets a more respectable seat in the pantheon.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

La Vida Dolorita - Part 3: And Four Walls

Inside the house, there´s a nice kitchen, a gas stove (the gas comes from tanks that last about a month) - which, in any case, is way better than cooking electric. They have a refrigerator, yes. Several cupboards, with food in them. To the left, you can see some arepas that I made.

There´s a TV set, where Lenis watches the Catholic Rosary Show in the morning, where regular people say lots and lots of Hail Marys, and sometimes, a floating image of the Virgin hangs suspended there on the screen for your meditative pleasure. Alexander watches sports at night. Also in the kitchen is usually a large jug of water, like the ones that are used in office coolers, but its not attached to a cooler. We buy that for 4000 bolivares down there at the bodega at the foot of the stairs.

Directly across from the kitchen opening is the main bedroom of Lenis and Alexander, with a bigger TV that plays DVDs. Down a little hallway, and we reach the dining room. It contains a sizeable dining table, and now a large china cabinet. The cabinet used to be in the hallway, but Jotsebe, Lenis and Alexanders preteen child, keeps rearranging the furniture.. to her credit, it does look better now.. but she keep stuffing everything on the table into one or two drawers, and I can´t find this cable or that pen.

There´s also a computer, with a really green screen monitor, and this wind chime of bells that is definitely hanging too low (you can see them in the upper middle of the photo at left). I know that, because I keep bumping into it. When I first arrived, I bumped into it alot, which is so funny, everyone says so. She says her friends always tell her, "Quitas las campanas" get those freaking bells out of there, because I´m not the only one who bumps into them. She´s short, so she never does. She just laughs, and they stay there. For a while, I tried really hard to make sure I didn´t bump into them, cuz it kind of hurts... but invariably, I would forget, and Clang! But now, after almost two months, I hardly ever bump into them anymore, without even thinking about it. What´s weird is, if I´m out of sorts, or preoccupied I walk right into them. I don´t consciously know the difference, but some part of me must now stay vigilant for the bells even though I´m not aware of it. It seems very buddhist, really, for a Catholic household.

Off the dining room is Jhorlan´s empty room - that´s Lenis and Alexander´s son. He doesn´t stay at the house, but the room is alwasy there in case he wants to. Reportedly, he stays with his girlfriend´s family, though I´m not sure of the details on this.

One more big room, the living room, doesn´t get a lot of use, mostly when special visitors come. This is where the front door is, and there´s a little altar with a bible, a statuette of Mary, and a vase for roses. Sorry, the photo is sideways. Jotsebe, their daughter, sleeps in a room just off the sitting room. They say their house is humble, but they own it. I think it´s magnificent. I sleep upstairs where the radio is, but that´s another story.

Lenis is a fervent Catholic. She is inspired by the saying of the rosary on the TV in the morning, and very often asks god to grant her favors, which generally speaking, occur. In one of the weirdest spiritual ironies this side of purgatory, she implied once that I was a gift from god. She told me that, the day I showed up, she was praying hard for a temporary and immediate solution to their money situation. I was, of course, hoping I could find a better, cheaper place to stay than the hotels I´d been in for the prior two months. I don´t pray the way she does, but I gots my own faith, and it seems to me that my People got together with her People and made a little Arrangement. And it came just in time for all of us. The rent money and the cash I´m paying them for helping me with the documentary isn´t a permanent solution to their problems, but their hospitality has almost completely solved mine.

I Just Have To Tell You This One Thing

I´m in San Cristobal, Venezuela, about an hour from the Colombian border. Alexander and I are here because I had this amazing idea that I would use some of the grant money to pay him to come with me to check out other areas of Venezuela. Fun and work at the same time... which reminds me of something I heard during this voyage: There´s play that is play, and work that is work. There´s play that is work, and work that is play, and in only one of these is the path to happiness.

We went to Valencia for a few days, and that was kind of like it was before, but with new people, and for a shorter time. We went to Barinas, a muggy agricultural center and drank too much before our interviews. And now we´re in San Cristobal, trying to find out what makes this different from other areas of Venezuela, con respecto a la revolution. And, I interviewed revolutionary city planners (yep, they exist!), and today, a local journalist to find out about why people keep getting killed here at the border.

That´s a little update. But what I wanted to tell you, we decided to head for the border, why not? It´s been months since I´ve been close to the border, I kind of miss the thrill. So we took a bus to San Antonio de Tachira, a lovely hour long bus ride. We got there, it was a sizeable border town, the kind of place that has everything except what you need: San Antonio tiene todo lo que no necesitas. So, I made a long phone call to Portland, and then we ate chicken that we didn´t like and decided to go back.

But what I forgot was that we were at a border town, and with the drug activity, immigration, and, the rarely mentioned gas smuggling (you see, gas is like $0.20 a gallon here - something interesting that needs to be mentioned in any analysis of Venezuela´s socialist revolution) - Colombian folks (who are not regarded highly in these parts) come over, buy cheap gas, and I assume, take it back and sell it. But that means there are a lot of Guardia Nacional people. And they check passports. And I´ve gotten used to not having mine with me, though I do carry a copy.

So, we all get off the bus, which is normal, but I realize I´m in a little bit of a bind not having my original passport. Shit, even if I did, it would be a problem, because I´ve overstayed my welcome here by about a month. That could be an annoying bug in my plans. The GN calls me over, and Alexander and I smile a lot, and GN tries to look mean, but he´s really not... and eventually, they let me go. Meanwhile, the camioneta (bus) I´m on has had to pull over to the side cuz I´m holding everything up. When we get back on, I apologize to everyone.

Alexander and I are sitting in the back seat where there´s usually a connected row of five seats... we had grabbed the window seats, and three amiable women were sitting between us, and had been chatting with us. They joked around about how I should carry my passport, and one mentioned how she lost hers one time in another country, and boy does it suck.

A little while later, we are stopped again, all quite normal, of course, and a GN gets on and asks for everyone´s cedulas (ID cards). And we all look at each other, "oh no..." He comes back and looks at everyone´s and I´m digging around again for my photocopy. While I`m doing that, he moves on, and ignores me. I start to wave my paper around, and they all hush me, and pretend to lean in front of me so that he won`t see me and come back. He gets off, and we leave, and sigh with relief, perhaps just as much so they don´t have to wait for me, as to prevent the hassle for me.

But think about this in the current context of immigration debate in the US, and the reality of Latin American immigrants in the US. How many of us would do the same thing for a Mexican guy sitting on the grayhound next to us? Playfully cover for him without his passport or expired visa anyway? Or even talk with him?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

La Vida Dolorita, Part 2: Sweat, Water, Blood, Shit

I walk up about 35 uneven steps to get to the front door of Lenis & Alexanders house. The first day I came, when they were building the radio antenna, I helped bring Johnny down the stairs. Johnny gets around in a wheelchair and a modified car. It wasn´t easy bringing him down in a chair. Johnny has an interesting story: according to Lenis, Johnny´s family has land out near Barquisimeto. He doesn´t go out there much, himself. Recently, the land was seized by campesinos under the land redistribution law. Johnny´s a big Chavista, and would normally support the land policy, but his family doesn´t have that much, so it´s kind of a conundrum for him, because he´ll have to argue against the government to get his land back. Anyway, I think the point is that La Dolorita isn´t exactly wheelchair accessible.

Sometimes I come in the side gate. I always have to be careful not to let out the 5 dogs. Five dogs, all female. We call them las perras. Niña, Negra, Gaba, Suji, and for some reason, I can´t remember the other one. Suji the puppy is my favorite. Niña is lactating right now, and when she menstruates, we call her señorita. There`s a concrete patio in the back, enough room for the dogs to run around. Every morning, someone picks up the dogshit and washes down the concrete. I´ve done it a couple of times, because I want to help, but I don´t think I do it right. In fact, I´m never doing anything right. It´s not like they´re mad at me for that, or that I always feel like a bad person. It´s just that they have all of their systems for living their lives, and they are very well articulated - and they are very different from the routines I would expect in a home in the states. I never quite understand.

For example, when it rains, a large bucket fills up with water which they use to rinse off the patio. They save the gray water from the washing machine to soap down the patio. But i´m never sure how much of the soapy water to use - and what do I do when there is no soapy water? There`s a spigot, but I know this draws water from their tank. Their tank receives water every 27 days, which I just now realized is kind of a menstrual cycle too. The last time it came was on my birthday. Anyway, I´m not sure I should use the water out of the tank, because it´s the same water we use to wash dishes, shower, and flush the toilet with - not drinking water, but clean water.

In Latin America, you never flush your shitty TP! The plumbing systems are complicated and sometimes old, and will get clogged up. Plus, they don´t really have wastewater treatment. A lot of the sewage heads right out into the rivers. Almost all urban rivers are contaminated. I was walking around with a friend from Atlanta in Merida, and we were hating the traffic, so he suggested walking down by the river. We have this idea that a river bank is a pleasant place to stroll away from the traffic on the street. But every urban river is just an open sewage pipe. They´ve generally all been fortified by concrete to prevent sewage from soaking into the soil, but there are no pleasant urban strolls by the river.

I have learned a new engineering trick, that I´m sure will come in handy the next time I encounter a plugged up toilet, something I couldn´t even imagine coming from the land of flushing paper: all you have to do, if your toilet is stuck up, is fill up a big bucket of water and pour it one medium fast pour right into the center of the bowl. The force of the water pushes through the plumbing, and takes the rest of the water with it. Astounding. There is a hose in our bathroom from which we fill a 5-gallon bucket to bathe, flush, and clean the floor. What we do is fill up the big bucket, then dip a smaller bucket in and fill it up, then dump it on our heads. Every morning, standing there, right before I do this, I say to myself, I can´t believe I`m about to dump this cold water on my head. Especially if it´s a little chilly. But then I do, and it´s done. Like jumping into a pool.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

La Vida Dolorita - Part 1: Short Walk, Long Trip

I can´t think that the goal of a global justice movement is to try to turn the whole world into a barrio. Although, some middle/upper middle class folks in Venezuela are worried that the "socialist" policies of Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias intend to do just that.

Likewise, writing this from the upper class urban neighborhood of El Viñedo in the wealthy area of Valencia, it can´t be true that material justice on a global scale means we work to turn every barrio into a glittering landscape of glass walls and manicured lawns. For one, there just aren´t enough resources in the world for all the humble folk to live like gringo wanna-bes (that´s not my term, that´s what Valencians say about the people in this sector). It´s easy for me to criticize the materialist aspiriations of better off Venezuelans, for lots of reasons - one significant one is that they live a lifestyle that is very similar to many Portlanders, and they do that when there is much more obvious material inequality right in their face. In a way, it´s refreshing, because it´s so unapologetically classist, it avoids a lot of the hypocrisy we can observe in white liberal areas of the US, folks who imagine themselves working for change, but quite disconnected from the reality of those who suffer. Nope, the "cifrinos" here say, I´m not poor, and I´m not gonna be poor, and I have the right to make my life as "good" as I can make it.

A side note for a later posting: it may be that a definition of socialism questions just this assumption: Do you have the right to have your life as good as you can make it, at the expense of others?

I don´t want to glamorize life in the barrio of Petare, but I don´t want to stereotype it either. I do want to try to write something that makes the people who live there more real. There are millions of totally real people living in barrios in South America. They go to work, and have kids, and go to church. Sometimes they have radio stations. Sometimes, shooting happens. Sometimes, drugs are sold. Lots of times, people hang out on the street and talk real loud, and lots of times, men drink beer in packs. And lots of times, people dress up and comb their hair to go to school and put on cologne and a nice shirt, and hopefully, nobody will know that they live in the barrio.

Petare is a huge mass of people, terra cotta, and tin. Reportedly the largest barrio, in terms of population, in S. America. Entire bus networks ply the twisty, narrow, garbage-strewn streets, passing innumerable murals, some government-related, some community designed, sometimes just spraypaint on the wall. Less formal transportation networks exist, too - like the carritos (basically an old model US car, quite beaten up, that stuffs five passengers at 1,500Bs each) that take me from the Palo Verde Metro station up to La Dolorita where I live, or the jeeps which carry folks 6 or 7 at a time up into the hills above Caracas. And mototaxis, too: more expensive, but they`ll get you around the thought-stifling traffic james that are endemic in Venezuela.

To get to my habitacion, I ride the Caracas metro, line 1, all the way out to the Palo Verde stop, the last one on the lane, the stop right after the Petare stop. This puts me into urbanizacion Palo Verde, and the nearby Centro Comercial Palo Verde. I come out of the metro, and ride a carrito up into the cerros (hills, but also another name for groups of barrio dwellings). First, we pass the high rise apartments of the urbanizacion, then we get to a kind of greener area, basically, the side of a cliff that`s too steep for ranchos (the names of the dwellings themselves). Once we emerge from this part, we´re in Parroquia La Dolorita (just like New Orleans, Venezuela uses parroquias. A parroquia is bigger than a neighborhood, but smaller than a municipio - a municipio is kind of like a county, and a parroquia is something like the way we use the word city in large urban areas - Beaverton is a City, and so is Troutdale, and Oregon City - an administrative zone within a municipio.)

Anyway, once we make a hairpin turn onto the carretera (highway) principal Dolorita-Mariche, you pass a McDonald´s on the right, and enter an industrial zone that courts the edges of the carretera and the hills. It´s sort of surprising at first, because you wouldn´t expect there to be large factories and warehouses so high up in the hills, but there they are. Interesting note about McDonalds: Whereas fast food in the states is generally pretty cheap, in Venezuela, it´s rather expensive, and really focused on getting the kids to want to go. A McMeal of some sort is about 8,000 Bs, and a really good meal in a cheap restaurant with soup, fish, rice, fried plantains, juice, and an arepa, can be as low as 5,000 Bs. Sort of strange, but fast food is exotic (though very common), not a just a cheap, fast way to eat, and that accounts for the way it operates in this culture.

About 10 minutes to one hour later (depending on traffic), passing the noteworthy Catholic church my host family attends, I arrive at Dolorita central. This area is always busy, especially on the weekends, and was a little intimidating at first, but nobody bothers me, and often, someone calls out to me that I have met. There´s a panaderia with some yummy deserts and good bread, a butcher shop (the meat is not so good, but it´s open late), a police module (fact is, where the police are in the barrios, is where it´s tranquilo), a supermarket and a Mercal (the low cost government grocery stores). From this spot, 7 streets go off in different directions. I walk up one of them, quite steep, for about 5 minutes. I pass a basketball hoop and a small bodega where we can buy beer, cigarrettes, and soda, and just past that, the last gate on the left, is the stairway to my temporary residence.

So, if you want to drop by, you can probably find me. Just ask around for the gringo at the community radio station.

El Salvador Gets Cheap Oil

Interesting times for El Salvador. The FMLN (Faribundo Marti Liberacion Nacional), formerly revolutionary armed group turned political party, barely wins the election, after three days of delayed results. This comes right after Bush administration goes around the stalled CAFTA implementation, preferring instead to sign one on one deals with Latin American countries.

And now, Chavez says, if you´re going to sign a deal that doesn´t benefit El Salvador, we´ll sign one that does: cheap petroleum in exchange for agricultural products. Now, I don´t know exactly how the products get to the border of countries like Bolivia and El Salvador - but if there are provisions that ensure that these products are produced by small farmers and agricultural cooperatives, these deals really do help campesinos in these countries. Without seeing some numbers, I can´t tell on what scale, but one of the problems of the campesinos we met in Nicaragua was that CAFTA would make it more difficult for their farmers to get their products to an international market, because they can´t afford all the shipping infrastructure that the big agriculture companies can.

It´s pretty interesting foreign policy.

Chavez Lashes Out at Free-Trade Pacts

The Associated Press
Monday, March 20, 2006; 11:43 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela agreed Monday to sell fuel under preferential terms to an El Salvador association created by a group of leftist mayors. Details of the amount of fuel that will be sold to the Intermunicipal Energy Association for El Salvador were not immediately available but shipments were to begin "as soon as possible," said Violeta Menjivar, mayor-elect of San Salvador.

It was not immediately clear what kind of fuel was covered by the agreement, but local Salvadoran officials said they hoped for diesel and gasoline. The Venezuelan state oil firm subsidiary PDV Caribe reached the agreement with the El Salvador association, formed by mayors belonging to the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front party.
Under the agreement, cities headed by the FMLN will pay 60 percent of their oil bill within 90 days while paying for the rest in-kind through agricultural products and locally made goods, said Soyapango Mayor Carlos Ruiz.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose country is a major world oil producer, has broadened his influence with generous oil deals to countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. The program has also extended to the United States where the leftist leader has shipped cheaper heating oil to low-income people in New York and Massachusetts via its company Citgo Petroleum Corp.

Chavez, a frequent critic of U.S. policy, used Monday's signing occasion to criticize U.S.-backed free trade agreements such as the one El Salvador joined March 1. "They're making deals with the devil, the devil himself," Chavez said.

Salvadoran President Tony Saca criticized the oil deal and urged the FMLN not to try to generate "false hopes" among Salvadorans. The FMLN, once backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, battled conservative U.S.-backed governments until a peace treaty in 1992, when the FMLN transformed itself into a political party.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

7,000 Women Can´t Be Wrong

I hope I never need to use my embassy while I´m in Venezuela. Come to think of it, given the work I´m doing here, they´d probably send me to Cuba if I tried to ask for help. Anyway, the reason that I walked with my friend from Cooperativa Radiofonica Petare all the way to the US Embassy had a lot less to do with my asking for help, than it did with delivering the message to the US government that it needs help - psychological help.

On International Women´s day, maybe 8,000 of us walked from Chacaito, in the financial district in East Caracas through Las Mercedes, the upscale dining and shopping district, along a highway, and high up into the hills above Caracas to deliver an "open letter from the women of Venezuela to the US government" Every state in Venezuela sent a delegation of women.

After blocking the highway for a few kilometers along with the mayor of Caracas and many other well-known functionaries of the government, we entered and exclusive, steep neighborhood. It was a grueling climb, much longer than we expected, but after a while, we knew that we had to go on, that the reason that the embassys are up there are just to prevent this kind of thing from occurring.

I mean, I don´t have anything fantastic to report, the whole thing is what was amazing. A member of the national assembly read an open letter from the women of Venezuela to the US Government, asking them to get out of Iraq. Given the high profile spat between the Venezuelan and US government recently, to stand in front of my own embassy with folks singing their national anthem was humbling.

Standing with people who consider themselves radically socialist and nationalistic at the same time produces an odd feeling for me. What would it take for me to feel proud to sing my national anthem in a group of people? And it those of us criticizing our government, standing in solidarity with folks who really have something to lose at our hands, people who look at me and say "when are you guys going to have a revolution?" - it seems easy to just reject all of our country´s symbols. What will it take for me to wave my flag around, and not see each star as a death´s head, like the picture above?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Political Tourism

Hey, everyone! I haven´t been completely idle.. I´ve published my first magazine article! And issue 36 of Clamor magazine is out, and should be at stores that stock progressive media (Powell´s should have it).

My article is pretty short: after being on the road for five months, I´ve developed both a dependence and critique of travel guides like Lonely Planet and Footprint. While they are indispensable for getting around and finding a hotel, their claim of promoting responsible tourism and presenting accurate historical facts are easy to question. Tourism is a powerful and unbalanced economic force. While we can´t stop white folks with money from entering countries (why not? it seems we can stop brown folks without money from doing so...), we might think very seriously about creating guidebooks that do more than encourage vegetarian fare at the sites of mass slaughters of indigenous people.. and actually create political tourism, a kind of moving through the world that is designed to get people involved with groups who are doing good work in communities.

This is not easy, but look for more details after I publish the article on this blog in a few months. For now, check out the Clamor site and buy a magazine for me to read when I get home, too!

Go, CITGO, Go!

I don´t want to do too much reposting, since this is supposed to be a more personal account of what I discover, but the following short article, in my assessment, describes the situation just as I see it, and explains well the recent lame attempt to impugn CITGO as a threat to the US oil economy for selling cheap oil to poor communities. Really, a brilliant political move, if you want to make the current administration look foolish and greedy.

The situation is more complicated, of course, and not everything is perfect on this so-called road to a 21st Century Socialism. But for now, this gives a good introduction for those looking for a little more analysis than mass media has to offer.

Venezuela's Threat
by ZNet
Saturday, Mar. 04, 2006 at 7:36 PM

Chavez is viewed as a threat, as a "virus" that might "infect" others.
By Gary Olson

Here is today's multiple choice question: Who recently provided 1.15 million gallons of low-cost heating oil to thousands of poor and working class families in seven East Coast states, including 25,000 people in Philadelphia, and did so with the words,"No one should be forced to sacrifice food, shelter, or medicine to stay warm" ?

a.) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
b.) Felix Rodriguez
c.) George W. Bush
d.) Oprah Winfrey
e.) 10 major U.S. oil companies.

The correct answer is "b" and Rodriguez is the CEO of Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). On behalf of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he also distributed free heating oil to dozens of homeless shelters from Maine to Delaware. Venezuela, with the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East and the world's fifth largest oil producer, also sold oil at far lower costs to fifteen poor nations in the Caribbean and Central America. Even Native Americans in Maine were recipients, and Chief Bill Philips of the Micmac tribe thanked Pres. Chavez: "He is a fellow Native from the Americas, and we appreciate Chavez trying to bring low-cost heating oil for our elderly."

The 10 U.S. oil companies did not respond to requests to help the poor. Just one of them, Exxon, reported record profits of $36 billion in 2005. Can the twice democratically-elected Chavez be the same fellow that Pat Robertson wants the CIA to assassinate, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has likened to Adolf Hitler; and official and semi-official types have placed on the White House "enemies list," labeled a "red devil," as "lethal as Osama bin Laden," and a "madman"? Further, the U.S. supported a unsuccessful military coup against Chavez in 2002 and Condoleeza Rice has called the Venezuelan government a "major threat to the region." Assuming for the moment that preventing Pennsylvanians from freezing to death hasn't prompted this venomous rhetoric, what could account for it? Perhaps the answer lies in some evil deeds done by Pres. Chavez back in Venezuela. What mischief has he been up to there?

The challenges are daunting in Venezuela where 80% of the population is poor and some 1 million children scratch out a bare subsistance in the major cities. After four decades of indifferent upper-class rule, Chavez, a 51-year-old former army paratrooper, was elected president in 1998 and again in 2004. According to Washington-based economist Mark Weisbrot, "The tangible improvements for those living in Caracus' poor barrios have been noticed in the rest of Latin America, a region with the most outrageously unequal income distribution in the world." Here are a few highlights of his tenure:

* For the first time time, universal health care is official state policy and peasants are living longer due to accessible health care.
* Elementary schools are providing three free meals a day to all students, drawing some million new students to school.
* Misiones (missions/government projects) are extending vital social services like literacy training, food subsidies, and rudimentary health care to the poor.
* Indigenous Venezuealans, homosexuals and women are now protected in the constitution.
* Land reform is redistributing idle land to landless peasants. * Operation Milagro (miracle), a joint venture with Cuban doctors, has restored eyesight to thousands of blind people in the region.

Venezuelan elites, who despise Chavez and call him a "monkey," have tried mightily to sabotage the economy for eight years, but it grew at a respectable nine percent in 2005, the highest in the hemisphere. Venezuelan oil has made this possible but only Chavez acted on the clearly subversive and radical notion that his country's vast resources should be used to benefit the country's people and even those beyond its borders. Oil was nationalized in 1976, but according to all accounts the oil bureaucracy operated as a "state within a state," refusing to function on behalf of the citizens. The system remains imperfect but Chavez finally excercised effective control over PDVSA in 2001. State oil profits were over $25 billion last year and the petrodollars are now staying home in the form of high social spending, faithfully reflecting social ownership of this natural resource. Something must be working because his approval rating stands at 77%, the highest in the Americas.

And of course this begins to explain why Chavez is viewed as a threat, as a "virus" that might "infect" others. An alternative development model where the citizens, not private U.S. foreign investors, are the primary beneficiaries of government policy is feared by U.S. elites. As Latin American expert Prof. Rosa Maria Pegueros observes, from Washington's perspective the real threat is that if Chavez succeeds, he may "create an egalitarian society that has the power to resist United States hegemony." Who knows where this virus may appear next?

To help it spread, I'm filling my tank at the Citgo station from now on.

Gary Olson, Ph.D. is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem,PA.