Sun | Oct 22, 2017

Diez dias en Caracas (10 days in Caracas) – part one

Published:Sunday | July 17, 2016 | 12:12 AMMel Cooke
Mel Cooke A pro-government rally in Caracas, Venezuela, in early July.
Contributed In this September 6, 2005 photograph, Cuban President Fidel Castro (right) makes a comment to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left), much to the amusement of Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson. They were at the Second PetroCaribe Summit at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
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I recently visited Venezuela to participate in the 13th World Festival of Poetry and formed a first-hand impression of a country about which there is intense political speculation.

In the parts of Caracas I saw three weeks ago, there were no roving packs of starving, wild-eyed people, blunt instruments at the ready, hunting for whatever scraps of food they could find in stores or rubbish bins.

I went into restaurants of the fast-food and more upscale type; I walked into supermarkets, I walked into a market in Chacao (a municipality of Caracas) and touched plantains, bananas, onions and garlic; I looked at prices (half kilo of onion was 800 BolÌvars about $170 at the official exchange rate of 600 Bolivars to US$1. The unofficial market rate is closer to 1000 Bolivars to US$1). I saw people shopping, living, laughing, showing signs of stress and going about the business of living.

On my second morning in the city, as I read a story on The Gleaner's website that mentioned Caracas being at a standstill, I was looking out my fourth-floor room window at the Gran Melia Hotel at two lanes of traffic passing by at 7 a.m.

Ten days in a small part of a city with close to double the population of Jamaica and a storied history of struggle could not make me even knowledgeable about the current situation and forget about being an expert. I was told more than once that the situation is "complicated", and I am sure that is much more gnarled than my casual observations could ever discern. Plus, I was a very well-treated guest of the State - my experience could never be the average Venezuelans, just as a guest of the Jamaican state lives in a different world from mine.

However, I took the bus, the subway, walked (against cautions about crime), and was driven, flown out of the city to Barinas state, where late president Hugo Chavez was born and driven around again. I saw a country where some people are going through real hardship; where stacks of Bolivars are required

for many transactions because inflation is horrendous; where there is a heavy police presence (comparable even to Kingston), where the warnings about crime are constant and there are very long lines at some ATMs as people queued for the sheer volumes of cash required to do transactions.

However, in my time there, were no indications of a society on its knees, social stability poised on a knife's edge as the news reports widely available to me (read American) would have led me to believe if I did not have a healthy dose of scepticism in the first place. In fact, the one political rally I saw was pro-Government. Of course, it is hard to determine how genuinely strong a pro-Government gathering is as matters of support for sheer survival come into play. Still, the level of saturation of Hugo Chavez' image (in the airport I saw a picture with the legend 'lider eterno' leader forever) seems very hard to fake.

And it seems very, very hard to defeat. It raises the question of the sustainability of a government that could be ushered in on the back of economic constraints created for that purpose. It did not take long for some Iraquis to miss Saddam Hussein or Libyans to long for Muammar Gaddafi. It is one thing to construct and project chaos in a country externally to justify regime change by whatever means, but quite another to govern a population that lives the reality rather than the image.

It was my first time in Venezuela, but I came with some experiences at home and abroad. At home, as a very young, child I lived through the food shortages of the 1970's, and when the People's National Party (PNP) lost in 1980 I saw a lot of rice with weevils dumped behind a particular supermarket in Morant Bay, St Thomas. I did not hear about it. I saw.

Shortages of particular items are not hard to construct, if the merchant class is so inclined. I remembered that when I started carrying toilet paper from the hotel in my ever-present knapsack, just in case, because some places simply did not have any (not the airport, though). Those of a certain age will remember the coarse, coloured toilet paper that was all that was commonly available when the shortages hit in Jamaica in the 1970s. From Caracas to Kingston, the rear seems vulnerable to abrasive intent, to efforts at wearing down the population.

Then I was outside Jamaica in May 2010 during the Tivoli Incursion, sitting in campus housing facility at the University of Anadolu in Eskisehir, Turkey, getting the earliest information I had from news websites.

Initially, I thought there was a civil war on across the entire country and I was in a state of near panic about my family. Then I started getting e-mail contact and learnt that outside of specific areas of Kingston, in particuilar, it was life and business as normal. I could not trust the foreign press about the true state of my country.

And, it seems, neither can I totally believe all I read about a city I visited a sliver of for 10 days from June to July 2016.

Next week: Trodding around Caracas