Montag, 21. April 2008

the truth and nothing but...

both in haiti and venezuela the initial reaction of people when they have seen me with a camera has been to assume that i'm a journalist, instead of the usual reaction of assuming that i'm a tourist. perhaps a dozen times, people in caracas urged me, assuming me to be a reporter, to 'tell the world The Truth about what is really happening in venezuela.' since i consider telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth both a philosophical and practical impossibility, i usually mumbled something spineless along the lines of 'i'll try my best...' only once did i actually falsely 'promise' to Tell The World The Truth, as that particular, slightly drunk chavista was getting increasingly aggressive in his demands that i promise to do just that.

so what's my version of The Truth about the bolivarian revolution? talking about latin american revolutions conjures up images of young, strikingly handsome, fatigue-clad guerrillas, male and female, somewhere in the cordilleras, kalashnikov in hand, battling the forces of oppression (visually exemplified by overweight, mustachioed latifundistas and brutal cops with cheap shades) and defending the rights of the down-trodden campesinos. what seems to be happening in venezuela is, however, much less melodramatic. the stated goal of building 'a venezuela, a present for everyone' consists of mundane measures such as installing wheelchair ramps at metro stations, drafting new zoning laws, building cable cars that will allow the people in the barrios which cling precariously to the steep hillsides surrounding caracas to travel into the city at subsidised prices, of providing cultural activities for free, of subsidised medicines and basic food stuffs, increasing access to education, instilling a sense of pride in the heritage of the previously marginalised non-european sections of society...

soppy leftie that i am, these all seem sensible to me and will maybe make more of a difference in society than the nationalisation of the odd steel mill or yet another fiery anti-american speech. there are some things which i am not completely comfortable with, though, such as the prominent role of the military, the cult surrounding chavez or his coziness with people like putin or lukashenka. but as for the goal of achieving a more just, inclusive, humane society, i wish the venezuelans the best of luck.

Dienstag, 15. April 2008

saints and spirits

the walls of the little, side-alley shop are filled with bottles, statues, amulets, powders, potions and books. a young couple, assisted by the old lady behind the counter, is pondering which amulets they ought to buy, which ones would best serve their needs, fulfill their wishes...

the artefacts in the shop are all part of the local yoruba (or orisha) religion. like its counterparts in the caribbean and other latin american societies, yoruba is a mixture of catholicism, indigenous beliefs and african religious influences brought over by west african slaves. the catholic church saw these religions as pagan cults while the more earthly colonial masters feared the revolutionary potential of these movements which were beyond their control (and were quite possibly spooked by the undertones of black magic involved). and with good reason, as these various religious movements did in fact often provide an important structural basis for slave revolts, such as the 1804 revolt in haiti which eventually led to haitian independence.

being more or less forbidden religions, these syncretic movements often 'hid' their message in an accepted catholic packaging. for example, the west african trickster god eleggua has taken on the form of saint anthony of padua while the gifts given to santa barbara are actually meant for the goddess shango.

in venezuela, this veneration of saints, spirits and gods also involves the veneration of historical figures considered to have special powers, such as simon bolivar, guaicaipuro or the doctor jose gregorio hernandez. intriguingly, the yoruba pantheon also includes the figure of a viking, symbolising the norse settlers of vinland. unfortunately i was not able to elicit much more information about the figure, apart from that it is an auspicious figure and apparently a relatively popular one at that.

coming back to the young couple in the shop, i could not help but notice that they evidently didn't put all their faith in supernatural powers. in order to deal with more mundane problems of everyday life in caracas, they were quite conspicuously 'packing heat,' with a 9 mm automatic on her belt and a revolver on his...

Montag, 14. April 2008

roots, rock, reggaeton

as mao famously said, the revolution is no tea party. but the great helmsman hadn't said anything about street parties... and so it happened that i found myself yesterday in a sea of red t-shirts and baseball caps, venezuelan flags and revolutionary slogans on a closed off stretch of one of the main streets of caracas.

by pure coincidence i seem to have arrived here in time for the celebrations marking the 6th anniversary of the failure of the anti-chavez coup in 2002. the occasion has been marked by above-mentioned street party, speeches, concerts, demonstrations and a military parade (assault helicopters and fighter-bombers screeching across the sky in the name of 'world peace,' of course...)

on the streets were about a dozen stages with salsa, reggae, reggaeton, rock, political speeches etc., stands were selling trotsky's books and popcorn, chavez-puppets and beer, revolutionary newspapers and ice cream. while the usual revolutionary suspects such as che, fidel and bolivar were feted, one could also see a concerted effort here to raise awareness of (and pride in) indigenous heroes such as cacique guaicaipuro who led a successful revolt against the spanish.

later on, the man himself, hugo chavez frias, gave a speech to his faithful, calling for a true bolivarian revolution, socialism, dignity, equality and vigilance in the struggle against The Empire...

while the chavistas were dancing in the streets, those not so positively inclined towards the revolution spent the weekend spending their money like there's no tomorrow in the shopping centres, restaurants and night clubs of east caracas, cruising around in oversized suv's, just like the nouveaux riches anywhere.

Freitag, 11. April 2008

money is the root of all evil

from a purely visual point of view, caracas presents itself as a slightly schizophrenic city. on the one hand, banners and murals 'welcome the socialist delegates to insurgent caracas,' urge the people to 'cultivate the seeds of the socio-cultural revolution,' remind us that 'the present (as in 'the now') belongs to all of us' and announce that 'under chavez, the people are the government.' these revolutionary slogans are, however overshadowed by 20 metre tall luminous nescafe cups, equally enormous pepsi signs, ubiquitous multinational beer commercials sporting scantily clad blondes and so on...

in a sense, the simultaneous struggle and co-existence of the two world views exemplified by the slogans could perhaps be seen as a reflection of where things are at in venezuela as a whole. one of the upshots of this struggle for the future of this country has been an economic crisis, with high inflation and an exodus of capital out of the country.

the detractors of the bolivarian revolution claim its due to chavez' propensity to use state funds based on political rather than economic calculations, the chavistas claim its due to the detractors themselves, who, being in the upper and middle class of society control the economy and, being no friends of chavez, have been putting the breaks on economic development themselves by taking their money out of venezuela and placing it in offshore accounts. both possibilities sound plausible enough and are not mutually exclusive.

be that as it may, the way this all has impacted my life is that the government has now moved to curb currency flows in and out of the country and a currency black market has emerged. i don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but in any case changing dollars into bolivares is trickier than one might think. as i couldn't find an official exchange office anywhere close by, i decided to try to tap into the black market, which had the added allure of offering me almost twice as many bolivares for my greenbacks than the official rate. and what better way to try and do something shifty than to go and talk to the experts on the issues: taxi drivers. as my luck would have it, though, i stumbled upon an extremely rare kind of human being: an honest, law-abiding taxi driver. so instead of offering to change my dollars at some dodgy rate, he took me to an official exchange place. what's more, he didn't even try to rip me off and even lowered the price from what he had initially said. shocking.

the official procedure for exchanging money was also quite complicated, with my passport getting photocopied, me having to sign a declaration that i was acting according to the provisions of regulation 185/01 of the supervisory agency of banks and other financial institutions of the bolivarian republic of venezuela and had my fingerprint taken before i received my bolivares. in a sense i could have understood the procedure if i was trying to take money out of the economy, but i was bringing money in, and legally at that... but then again i should have learned by now not to try to understand the logic of bureaucratic procedures.

another upshot of the economic crisis seems to be that food prices are high. not necessarily in the absolute sense (depending on whether you exchange money legally or on the black market, its either a bit higher than the central american average or actually quite cheap), but more in the relative sense. for example, a small pizza in a streetside restaurant costs about as much as a night in my hostel, 1,5 trips on the airport shuttle bus, 5 beers, 6 hours on the internet, 12 espressos or 36 rides on the metro. either those pizzas are something really special or something strange is going on.

one possible explanation could of course be that the chavez government might be subsidising the price of public transport, internet, coffee and beer - if that should turn out to be the case, i just might turn chavista myself...