The last time I was in Venezuela was in early 1964. At the time I represented Oilwell Supply in Brazil where we serviced two customers: Petrobrás, the national oil company, and Brantley Drilling Company. We lived in the lovely city of Salvador da Bahia. I was assigned to vacation relief in Venezuela where USSI Ltd. had turned the warehousing and day to day operations over to “East West Oil Tools” whose manager in Anaco was Bob Thompson. USSI Ltd. still maintained a presence in Maracaibo in the person of Ned Niver, my former boss from Anaco, who was based there with his wife and family.

It was delightful to return to Anaco and be reunited with old friends such as Joe and Susan McKee. Joe managed an independent supply company and they had been our neighbors when we lived in Anaco.

It was great to see them again and in retrospect even greater considering that Joe was seriously injured in an automobile accident shortly afterwards and they had to return to the US. Joe’s younger brother left the US Air Force to run the business, but tragically was killed in a case of road rage, when he too was in an automobile accident and the other party pulled a gun and shot him.

On a funnier note; during that stay I was driving on one of the deserted dirt roads east of San Tomé when I had to stop to answer the call of nature, only to have Joe McKee land his Cessna next to me on the road! One could not have privacy anywhere, it seems!

On another occasion, I had borrowed someone’s Nash Rambler to drive to Ciudad Bolivar to visit my folks. It is not clear to me why anyone would use a Nash Rambler in Eastern Venezuela where it would be strictly an “orphan”, but so be it. In any event, the owner had had a piece of diamond plate steel welded to the bottom of the car to prevent damage to its innards. As I approached Soledad, I realized that the carpet in the back seat was on fire. Apparently enough heat had built up between the “shield” and the floor boards to set the nylon afire. I kept going till I reached a filling station in Soledad – what else could I do? I rushed in and asked the attendants for a can of water, which he provided. He shook his head when the crazy gringo, rather than filling the radiator, threw the water in the back seat!

Anyway, back then Venezuela and Caracas were bustling. Caracas was a reasonably safe place to be, even though my wife did get temporarily kidnapped right in front of the U.S. Embassy by a cab driver who, I suppose, thought she was my Venezuelan girlfriend, being short and brunette. Once he got the picture- Judy spoke very little Spanish - he drove her to the Hotel Ávila and dropped her off in a hurry together with the stuff she had bought at Sears that day. A very scary experience for both of us.

Caracas was not as clean as what we were to experience in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia in Brazil, but a good place to spend some time.

I recently saw a tourist article in a newspaper about Venezuela, a rare thing to find indeed. It mentioned the Hotel Tamanaco and the Tarzilandia restaurant. I was amazed that after forty years there was nothing new in Caracas. I mean, while I personally preferred to stay at the Hotel Ávila rather than the Tamanaco, we did eat in the churrasquería Tarzilandia back then when we visited Caracas. Plús cá change, etc., etc.

The fact that Venezuela after forty years of democratic – albeit imperfect – government, now is falling into the hands of another caudillo, buckles the mind.

Imperfect or not, during the forty years since the fall of Perez Jimenez on January 23, 1958, not only had popularly elected presidents completed their terms and even turned the office over to popularly elected presidents of the opposition party, but one president had even been impeached and removed from office.

So what is happening? In the forties Venezuela had about 5 million inhabitants, in the sixties around 7 and today there are three times that many people.

Traditionally the white criollo aristocracy had run the country. With the growing prosperity in the '50s and '60s, more and more Venezuelans moved into the middle class, augmented by the thousands of European immigrants mostly from Southern Europe who came, set down roots, stayed and developed businesses in the country.

Then, as well as now, the hills around Caracas were covered with ranchitos, primitive dwellings built of corrugated sheets and – if lucky – concrete blocks.

Venezuela had and has compulsory, free public education and a rudimentary public health system. The aristocracy of course either had their children educated abroad or in private – usually Catholic – schools, while the middle class, including the children of the immigrants, took advantage of the free public liceos.

I attended both types of schools, the Colegio de San José in Mérída and the Licéo Andrés Bello in Caracas.

In the 1970s the Bolivar collapsed and the population grew exponentially. I have no data to back this up, but I speculate that the lower classes of the Venezuelan population grew exponentially faster than the middle and upper classes, placing burdens on both the private and public sectors. Thus many Venezuelans either were unable to move into the middle class or dropped out of it.

I am told that large numbers of the now second and third generation Italian, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants decided to return to their mother countries, as their monies evaporated through inflation and opportunities in Europe grew, especially for someone with even a modest Dollar nest egg to invest and the New World’s entrepreneurial spirit which they had learned and taken advantage off in Venezuela.

The middle class Venezuelans? My real experience with that group came through my high school days in Caracas and work in the oil fields. As far as I am concerned, the quality of a Venezuelan driller and roughneck was on par with that of his counterpart from Texas and Oklahoma. On the other hand, due to the laws governing the employment of Venezuelans by the foreign companies, you would have a Venezuelan tool pusher on the rig, usually wearing a white liqui-liqui suit and with manicured nails, that is: When he was around. He usually would not be in the way, as the rig also would have an American toolpusher as a back-up!

In my dealings with Venezuelans at all levels, I found them to be good people with a nice sense of humor, especially in the Andes where they were exceptionally admirable people.

Considering that the country had lived through a century or more of civil wars, golpes de estado and dictatorships, it is amazing that any kind of civic institutions, behavior and responsibility had survived. Traditionally some local war lord, usually from the Andes, would march on Caracas and take over for a number of years. The last of course was Juán Vicente Gomez whose thirty year reign at least produced stability for the country.

The last of these caudillos was of course Perez Jimenez who – despite the brutal police state imposed by his henchman Pedro Estrada and his Seguridad Nacionál – did invest the country’s resources in its infrastructure.

Some of these monuments to PJ have lasted until now, for instance the Caracas-LaGuaira Autopista that unfortunately now is out of service due to a collapsed viaduct, but also White Elephants such as the cylindrical Hotel Humbolt on top mount Ávila – complete with skating rink – and the cable car going up there. When PJ was deposed, he was planning a direct route through mount Ávila via a tunnel to Maiquetía, right through the mountain! Somewhat like the Russian Czar’s arrow straight railroad from St.Petersburg to Moscow, that still exists.

Then followed the forty years of functioning albeit imperfect democracy and then came ex-Colonel Hugo Chávez.

Interesting that after his unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992 he was court martialed and sent to jail. That in itself proved something about the maturity of Venezuelan democracy! In the “Good Old Days” he would have been “Shot while trying to escape” or if of a “good family” locked up for awhile and then exiled to France or some other comfortable place.

One significant thing about Chávez in the Venezuelan context is his ethnicity and social background. He is not a white criollo, but a mestizo from Barinas, son of a school teacher. A product of the newly democratic Venezuelan military that for the first time in the country’s history had accepted that the military should be subordinate to the civilian government, he decided that the civilians did not know what they were doing and that he – a military man – should set things straight. The old fashioned way.

He has the following of the great majority of the Venezuelan poor “lower classes”, what Juán Perón called his “shirtless ones”, the descamisados, if for no other reason because for the first time ever they are being promised a future. It is questionable whether he and his system are the ones to deliver, but at least the promise has been made. He was elected to office legitimately and in a recall referendum kept in office – for as long as anyone can foresee.

The traditional movers and shakers in Venezuela have never really caught on to the Henry Ford principle: You must pay the worker enough to buy a Ford car.

It all belongs to them.

Despite Venezuelan democracy being in a crisis, the opposition parties till this day have not been able to unite around a credible program or candidate to oppose colonel Chávez and until they do, he will indeed be President for Life.

His propaganda is simple: Help the people the old fashioned “machine” way: With visible cash while playing on Venezuelan patriotism and xenophobia by blaming the gringos for everything wrong in the country.

He flies around the world in his presidential Airbus A300 – not even PJ had a presidential airplane – he flew into exile from La Carlota to Miami in a Venezuelan Air Force C-54 - but cannot keep the highways in and out of Caracas or Mérida in repair. 

He has jailed some of the senior military officers, but given raises to the rest – his contemporaries from the Caracas military academy.

On the other hand he has purchased 100,000 AK-47s  from Russia to equip his “reserves”, actually a militia, sort of like Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen Hussein. One can speculate that at least some regular army officers might take time out from their leisure activities in the Círculo Militar in Caracas to wonder what these armed peoples’ reserves might be up to, never mind how many of the AK-47s end up in “armies of liberation” in other parts of Latin American, adding to Colonel Chávez’ image of himself as the new “Libertador”!

Chávez’ friendship with Fidél Castro also plays into the image of the anti-yánqui liberator. He can provide Cuba with money and Cuba in turn can send teachers and physicians to Venezuela to take care of the descamisados. Now, that is where the traditional rulers of the country are extremely vulnerable, as that is probably the one area where they have failed in their responsibilities over the last 195 years of feudal rule.

As for the US, we need the oil and despite Chávez’ saber rattling, oil is fungible. Chávez & Co. cannot drink the stuff, so once it is on the world market we will get what we need, although undoubtedly the oil companies will make sure that they are well paid for it – including Chávez’ own CITGO!

I doubt that Chávez can reach as reasonable an agreement with the Chinese as he can with the US, if his plan is to ship Venezuela’s oil there. I suspect that China will be a more hard-nosed trading partner than the US ever was and that any deals reached will have sub-clauses that we cannot even imagine.

Never mind that Iran and its oil are a lot closer to China than Venezuela!

Bottom line: Chávez still needs the money to keep his Airbus flying to Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, to buy weapons from his newly found friends in Russia and China and to rub the yanquis noses in it by making nice with Fidel!

So unless either Chávez’ government - or ours - makes a really stupid mistake, the tightrope act will continue for awhile.

All one can say is that Venezuela and its people deserve better than what they are getting now! That, of course, would not be the first time in their history.

 


Estimados, queridos & acordados amigos del Colegio de San José de Mérida y del Liceo Andrés Bello de Caracas,

Antes de todo, me tienen que perdonar mi castellano, que después de tantos años ya está bastante corrupto. Sería una desgrácia enorme sí el Padre Barrenechea SJ que pasó tantas horas entrenandome en esa bella idioma en un enfuerzo para el examen de equivalencia en el liceo de Mérida leía esto!

Durante los años desde entonces he aprendido y olvidado Italiano y Portugués, así que me tienen que perdonar.

Bien, así será.

Desde cuando salí la última vez de Venezuela, muchas cosas han cambiado, y no siempre para lo mejór. Mis observaciones muy subyuntivas dependen de lo que leo en El Universál y El Nacionál todos los dias por via del “web” y de lo que hé oído de amigos durante los años.

Hablando de los periódicos, es interesante que hoy parece mucho lo que pasaba en los años de Péres Jimnez: Lo importante es lo que no aparezca en ellos!

Beisból es importante, pero otras cosas occurren en el mundo – y en Venezuela.

Mis pensamientos van a los amigos de entonces: Carlos Rivas “Pachondy”, Roberto Perez Lecuna, los Vernet: Carlos y Pedro, los hermanos Enrique y Carlos Urdaneta, Rafael “Calderita” Urdaneta, Bernardo Suarez y muchisimos otros ademas los que ya no están con nosostros: Jorge Olavarría, Roberto Matute, Francisco de Sales Roche, P.Carlos Reyna SJ, P.José María Velaz SJ, Hermano Eduardo Willanzheimer, Padres Ollaquindia, Barrenechea, Aranzadi, Ordoñez y Bilbao, profesores Arconada, Rivero y Paez, siempre: El Padre Prefecto: Pascasio Oriortúa SJ y tantos cuyas caras permanecen en mí corazón, mientras sus nombres desgracidadamente han sido olvidados.

Al fin del cuarto año del Bachillerato Carlos Rivas me regaló el libro de Eduardo Blanco “Venezuela Héroica” y lo dedicó a mí así:

Dedico ésta interesante narración poética de nuestra máxima epopeya. Para que su lectura produzca en tí un sentimiento de tanta emoción como en qualquiera de los venezolanos. (Que procuramos repetír economicamente aquellos momentos nostálgicos de 'Carabobo')

Tu amigo
Carlos Rivas


Este libro hasta hoy ocupa un lugar de orgullo en los estantes de mi librería.

Aunque Pachondy tenía mas o menos dieciseis años cuando escribía éstas frases, su sentimiento todavía vale, yá que él és profesor emeritus de química.

Venezuela tiene de todo. Depende de sus hijos e hijas aprovechar de estos dones de la naturaleza. Su pueblo no necesita mas de los Juan Vicente Gomez ó Marcos Perez Jimenez. El pueblo venzolano – el Bravo Pueblo del himno nacionál – tienen lo que és necesario sín más caudillos!

Acuerdense del 23 de Enero del 1.958 cuando el pueblo pasaba por las calles de Caracas cantando el himno nacional, cargando los grandes cuadros vacíos que antes habian contenido los retratos del tirano caído!

Su amigo de siempre

El gocho gringo y dinamarqués

Peter

Branford, Connecticut. El 13. de Marzo del 2.006