photo & text by nacrowe
i sought out and first read COMANDANTE: HUGO CHAVEZ'S VENEZUELA (PENGUIN, 2013) by GUARDIAN journalist RORY CARROLL shortly after learning i would be teaching in VENEZUELA while still a PEACE CORPS volunteer stationed in ALBANIA. it was an intriguing historical moment because by the time i arrived in august of 2013, former president HUGO CHAVEZ had only been dead for a least 6 months. over the next two years i bore witness to a country in sharp economic decline.
more like free fall.
i lived in MATURIN in the east where most of the oil fields are. as an oil brat that grew up in NIGERIA an KUWAIT, i have some familiarity with the sometimes complicated nature of AMERICAN industry in foreign countries. CHAVEZ of course famously nationalized their oil industry and largely banished most oil companies from their reserves. this was seen domestically as a powerful move but crippled their prospects longterm as outside advice regarding technical expertise was now abandoned. when the price of oil dipped during my tenure out there, the effects were quick and painful and VENEZUELA has yet to rebound. in fact they are still in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that is largely the result of such shortsighted policies.
but how did he come to rule? the book presents CHAVEZ as a figure whose power was seen in his braggadocious, confident demeanor, his military background and especially the fact that he was the very physical embodiment of the underclass of VENEZUELAN society, having originated in the rural LLANOS region. VENZUELA, much like the rest of SOUTH AMERICA, has a population that has its origins in EUROPEAN, NATIVE and AFRICAN bloodlines. this being the result of SPANISH conquest in the new world (PORTUGUESE with obvious respect to BRASIL). cultural, religious and linguistic traditions of the continent are profoundly influenced by centuries of EUROPEAN colonization, so unfortunately one carryover is preference for all things EUROPEAN. the experience of watching television in VENEZUELA is where you would be hard pressed to identify people of non-EUROPEAN descent shown in beauty pageants, soap operas, game shows or even news broadcasts. like many others in the region (COLOMBIA, BRASIL, etc.), the media is effectively white-washed. much like BARACK OBAMA (although diametrically dissimilar in terms of their politics), the power of CHAVEZ is in part inseparable from his being the physical embodiment of the unprivileged and underrepresented classes in society.
reading this book i became aware of the narrative of his rise to power, which includes his imprisonment, election, attempted coup and reinstatement. i also grew to be aware of how he structured his public persona and cult of personality that still survives today. in essence he hitched his own to that of a tailored fiction surrounding that of SIMON BOLIVAR, by promoting one he promoted the other. CHAVEZ also create a new layer of bureaucracy between himself and powerful regional governors, whom he could scold and fire at will on his own television show ALO PRESIDENTE ("HELLO, MR. PRESIDENT"). in many ways he was like TRUMP before TRUMP. in essence this added layer of bureaucracy (more democracy!) allowed him to secure a buffer from any and all political fallout that resulted from his disastrous policies.
luckily, i made friends that allowed me to stay in CARACAS and visit many of the landmarks mentioned in this book. in this sense it was infinitely helpful in giving me an understanding of the political climate and recent history i was now entering. where i thought it lacked was in how uncritical CARROLL presents the regime at times. maybe that is an unfair critique, but after living there and witnessing the toll bore on the people of VENEZUELA (whom i found generous, vivacious, energetic, resourceful, selfless and beautiful) in the wake of his death makes me most likely not the most objective observer in that respect.
photo by veronica serrano
its crazy seeing all the shortages of things like toilet paper and basic food stuffs happen stateside these days, basically because i've experienced it all before.
this is the kind of thing i saw happen in the mid 90s during the isolated military regime of SANI ABACHA in NIGERIA and in VENEZUELA shortly after the death of HUGO CHAVEZ when NICOLAS MADURO took over in 2013. in both cases once you saw a desired product on a shelf you knew it was only a matter of time (usually within hours) that such would be gone to return who knows when.
in NIGERIA the company my father worked for got around this with large annual shipments (one per family) that were sent via international container ships that would take months at a time. you'd fill these things up by weight stateside during the summer and then see them in AFRICA in late autumn. it was crazy because you'd purchase a year's worth of any particular item (candy, napkins, detergent, etc). but it worked and meant you weren't relying on the local market for basic necessities, which was a good thing given the corruption of the military dictatorship of the time.
recent photo by nacrowe somewhere in new jersey
VENEZUELA was a different experience altogether in that i entered the country during a time of immense upheaval and change. CHAVEZ during his reign had nationalized various industries and kicked out foreign investment in things like oil and manufacturing. the UNITED STATES in particular used to manufacture napkins, paper towels and toilet paper in the country and after CHAVEZ' decision they merely relocated the factories to COLOMBIA (which in turn assisted in stabilizing their economy). i taught for two years there and over that time their currency spiraled out of control. the inflation was the highest in the world. since 2016 their currency has inflated 53,798,500%.
so what does that mean in human terms? it means people don't save, they spend because every day you wait the money has less value. prices are always climbing and basic common necessities like bread, food stuffs and household paper products are out of range for most to buy. during the end of my time there i went to COLOMBIA for a job conference. during my time in BOGOTA i brought two bodybags with me and filled them with deodorant, toilet paper and HARINA PAN (a cornmeal used in arepas, empanadas, etc). when flying back in VENEZUELA the officials there asked me point blank if i had any of the items on a checklist in my possession (the first three items being DEODORANT, TOILET PAPER and HARINA PAN). they weren't looking for drugs or weapons. i told them i didn't have any of those and they didnt check.
i brought those back to the school i worked at and over a few days passed them all out equally to the workers at my school. these included the gardeners, custodians, clerks, guards, drivers, etc. essentially i was handing them commodities that would appreciate with time and be worth more than their paycheck.
think about that. toilet paper, deodorant and cornmeal. now i don't think that the UNITED STATES will ever get to this level, but what i did learn in these situations is the resilience and dignity of NIGERIANS and VENEZUELANS i met. they really saw their individual needs in the context of their families and greater networks of friends. these desperate situations showcased what a true community was all about. i did what i could in VENEZUELA to the people i was around, but things have gotten much much worse since then and the rise of TRUMP has only made things worse.
not a day goes by i don't think of VENEZUELA. my goal is to return one day. NIGERIA i hear from friends has gotten much better as the government has succeeded in changing over its power a few times in fair elections, bringing in foreign investment. im glad that is the case.