McALLEN, March 10 - Landing at Maiquetia’s Simon Bolivar Airport in Caracas in August of 1999 with my three young children and a cart full of luggage in tow, I was immediately jolted out of all my preconceptions of the mystical Amazonian paradise affectionately named by Christopher Colombus as “Little Venice” or “Venezuela.”
The hot and sticky evening air was filled by the loud clamor of pseudo taxi drivers hustling passengers and personal chauffeurs calling out the names of oil companies as signals to the arriving American and European corporate executives. I was not one of those. Rather, I was here with my family to complete a year of work as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Constitutional Law at the Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela. My endeavor was made all the more daunting by the realization that, under the direction of Hugo Chávez, newly elected president, Venezuela was a nation in the midst of radical and sweeping change, a nation literally on the verge of rebirth.
The drive from the airport into the city of Caracas is one of austere beauty. The road is known as La Guaira Highway, an engineering masterpiece at the time of its completion in 1953. Eleanor Roosevelt had toured this highway shortly after its completion because Franklin Roosevelt had told her it was one of the most beautiful he had ever seen. In her autobiography, she commented how it had been built by the men and women of Venezuela as a kind of WPA project. Little did we know, as we traveled the 24 kilometers into Caracas, that this grand entry way into South America would soon be swept away.
Perhaps as a cataclysmic symbol of the massive paradigm shift instigated by Hugo Chávez, the highway, including the main tunnel of La Guaira, was swept away on December 15, 1999, crushed by the horrendous mudslides that killed 25,000 people or more; most of them poor who lived in multileveled shanty houses on the hillsides of the State of Vargas in Northern Venezuela. Many of the “damnificados” as they were called were caught by surprise as the drenching rains literally dissolved the earth and sent rivers of mud ripping through shacks and mansions alike from Caracas to the Caribbean, flushing everything into the sea. For months afterwards, we were warned by Venezuelan authorities to not eat the fish that had been caught off the coast of Venezuela for fear that they had been contaminated by human body parts. Chávez acted swiftly and deployed the military to conduct rescue and rebuilding efforts. Doctors were sent from Cuba to assist with the injured survivors. Many of them would stay permanently not wanting to return to Cuba. Offers from the United States to send relief through the Navy and Marines were rejected by Chávez who would not have the U.S. military on Venezuelan soil. Ultimately, this unprecedented natural disaster cemented the relationship of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, one the father and role model, the other, the son and anticipated heir to perpetuating a new Latin America for the 21st century grounded in communist and socialist ideals.
No visit to Venezuela conceals what is obvious. The country is wondrous, with amazing floral and aquatic beauty, all in its pristine and natural state, stretching from the foothills of the Andes to the Amazonian jungles. The world’s tallest water falls, the interminable greenness of everything, the beautiful blue and peaceful Caribbean, all this is Venezuela. There are acres upon acres of banana and coconut groves, citrus trees and papaya, mango and guava. Many expatriates I met truly felt it was paradise. It was here that my children and I saw our first pink dolphin and trees filled with hundreds of hummingbirds and iguanas. But, as obvious as the natural beauty, was the profound poverty manifested by layer upon layer of multi-colored shanty homes stacked at improbable angles high unto the hillsides surrounding Caracas like some crazy Jenga game.
This area known as ‘Las Mayas’ would later be a focus and model of Hugo Chávez’s efforts to build adequate housing for the poor in Venezuela. Life was hard in Venezuela. The extent of the poverty still resonates in my mind. Having grown up on the border of Texas and Mexico, I thought I knew poverty. The Rio Grande Valley has counties that are amongst the nations’ highest in poverty rates. However, Venezuela’s poverty was gut-wrenching hopelessness that I was not prepared to understand intellectually, much less emotionally. What was evident to me in 1999 was the simple fact that one of the world’s richest oil producing countries, indeed an OPEC nation, had no system in place to help its most vulnerable. No safety net, high unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, food and basic supply shortages, electrical blackouts, embarrassingly inadequate public education, poor public health, frequent transportation strikes and antiquated hydrology. It was in this context that Hugo Chávez was elected, buoyed by the poorest of the poor to whom he promised widespread social and economic reform.
Venezuela also had what was then and still is one of the highest crime rates in the world with over 60 murders per week in Caracas alone. Many of our fellow ex-patriots had been victims of kidnappings and robbery, some robbed at gunpoint while sitting at stop lights. I thought at the time, that they may have been targets because they were obviously American. We, on the other hand, were darker skinned and appeared to be something other than American. We were often mistaken for Russians, Italians or Lebanese which, to the Venezuelans, was more acceptable. Nonetheless, the United States Embassy had warned me to not stop at red lights or stop signs while driving. I followed those instructions diligently as did most other drivers. You can imagine how harrowing it is to drive through a huge city where no one wants to stop. I was finally pulled over by a Venezuelan policeman after running a red light. He vigorously lectured me on why Venezuelans must learn to obey traffic signals. He never asked me where I was from and I thought it best at the time not to tell him.
Machine guns and highly armed security guards were everywhere. It took some time to get used to their constant presence. They guarded the entrance to the International School that my children attended. They were at every shopping center, subdivision, housing and apartment complex, the grocery stores, movie theatres, the hospitals, hotels, restaurants and any public place where someone might have an urge to steal or stage a revolt. This is how the peace was kept, at least some degree of peace. I often wonder what mass shooting or terrorist attack will lead to armed guards in schools and malls here in the U.S. It was unnerving and, yet, necessary. On one occasion, I was traveling to my office when I unexpectedly drove into the midst of what can only be described as a gun battle. Muzzle flashes and loud popping emanated on either side of the street. Luckily, my quick Hyundai responded to my fear and I was able to maneuver out of the thick of things by driving in reverse at what seemed like lightning speed. I careened down that hill and did not wait to see how that battle ended.
The month of our arrival, a constitutional assembly, the Asamblea Nacional Constituyente or ANC, composed of a majority of Chávez loyalists, had been elected and tasked with writing a new constitution and creating a new Bolivarian republic. The process was fraught with controversy as the new Chávez order pushed out the entrenched ruling classes of Venezuela. There was one incident in which the members of the ANC were denied entrance onto the grounds of the Federal Legislative Palace. It looked like one of the Iranian crowd scenes from the recent movie Argo. Members of the ANC were climbing over the twelve foot high wrought iron gates all for the opportunity to create a new constitution. I remember clearly, one woman ANC member who had attempted to climb over the gates had become stuck at the top. She was unwilling to let go of her designer purse and was left in perilous limbo not able to go forward or back for fear of being attacked by the crowd below her. Civil unrest was occurring daily and the fear of possible loss of life was real, much like the moment of a mother giving birth. This too was a birth. After four frenetic and turbulent months, the ANC presented their constitutional draft to the public and Venezuelans ratified it by popular vote on December 15, 1999, the same day the mudslides washed away the La Guaira Highway.
The mood in Venezuela during that time was electric and high-strung, imbued with the enthusiasm and hope in the hearts and minds of the Chávistas, the working class and the poor who were fervently loyal to Hugo Chávez. One day after picking up my children at school, we were unexpectedly caught up in a Chávista rally that was winding its way through the streets of Valencia. We were suddenly part of a parade of vehicles whose occupants were yelling, shooting their guns and pistols into the air and blowing their car horns. Many were waving Chávez banners. My kids were thrilled but I was concerned because one of my vehicle’s occupants was the only other American in my son’s classroom and he was as blond as the sun at noontime. I made him lie on the floorboard of the car and we proceeded along unable to leave the revelry which was becoming more energetic by the minute. We were caught up in a moment of joy and celebration, which for the poor in Venezuela had not occurred in decades, if ever.
But it was not all excited expectancy in 1999. For some it was true fear. My colleagues at the Universidad, shop keepers, my kid’s teachers, all worried about the swift and relentless changes imposed by the Chávez administration. Many middle and upper class Venezuelans were feverishly making plans to leave the country. They sensed disaster and there was an ominous tone to the conversations one caught in the coffee shops and charcuteria’s of Venezuela. At the time, Venezuela was one of the world’s largest importers of champagne, caviar and luxury items, all to support the lavish lifestyles of the beauty queens, landowners and corporate moguls. Many of the upper and middle class had been in control of land and resources for hundreds of years, ostensibly since the conquest. Their status quo was about to dissolve. Regardless of politics, history is indisputable. Venezuela’s wealthy built their fortunes at the expense of the working class, and the transition of power upon the election of Hugo Chávez was the inevitable result of centuries of what was undeniably and essentially slave labor. Something had to change.
Set in the older part of central Caracas is the small mud-bricked prison where Chávez spent two years of his life after a failed coup in 1992 on the heels of the violent and bloody Caracazo of 1989. It is not far actually from the Pantheon where Simón Bolívar’s remains lie in state. Chávez emerged from that prison as a man reborn. A man intent on changing Venezuela, infused with the ideals and even a mystical spiritualism from the Great Liberator himself. Simón Bolívar even in those early days was Chávez’s touchstone, personally and politically, and I believe he may have felt he was the embodiment of the spirit of Bolivar. Chávez may have had a premonition that his time was short. He pushed the drafting of the new constitution to a vote before the end of his first year in office. Chávez removed over 500 seated judges from their positions in one swift action. By May, 2000, he had changed the name of the country. No longer was it just Venezuela but the “Republica Bolivariana De Venezuela.” Chávez nationalized the petroleum industry, and took land from the wealthy attempting to equalize the balance of power much as Mexico had sought to do under Villa and Zapata. Chávez seemed to be an amalgam of Bolivar, Stalin, Castro and Che Guevara. The election of Hugo Chávez and the birth of a new Venezuela became the seed for a new kind of socialism in Latin America. Right or wrong, it is clear that the old system in Venezuela had failed miserably and that the time for change had come.
I finished my academic year in Venezuela and left that fecund and chaotic paradise with a greater understanding of the ebb and flow of society and how a charismatic leader, albeit often stubborn and misguided, can alter that flow and create a torrent that changes the landscape forever.
Brenda Brown Perez is an Attorney at Law residing in McAllen, Texas. She is a former Senior Fulbright Scholar to Venezuela in Administrative and Constitutional Law for 1999/2000. The thoughts and opinions expressed herein, unless otherwise cited are her own.
Papers and Articles presented in Venezuela.
"Notas Historicas Sobre la Formacion de la Constitucion de los Estados Unidos con Enfasis en la Carta de Derechos," (Historical Notes on the Formation of the United States Constitution with Emphasis on the Bill of rights), Fall 1999.
"La Herencia Nazismo y los Derechos Humanos," (Nazism and Human Rights), presented to university professors and public at the invitation of the Universidad de Carabobo Departamento de Criminologia, December 1999.
"Tradiciones Comparativas en el Estudio De Relaciones Internacionales en la Area de Derechos Humanos," (Comparative Traditions in the Study of International Relations in the Area of Human Rights), November 1999.
"Judicial Suspensions and Due Process under Venezuela's New Democratic Model," 29 Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judges 125 (Fall 1999).