Saturday, January 11, 2003

WAR ZONE
Saturday 11, January 2003

I decided to leave tomorrow instead, although I wish I could stay because there is an encore to the march that was shot at on the 3rd. The opposition after a few days of reflection decided to go to Los Proceres again. I wish I could go but I have too complex a situation at work on Monday.

This morning a friend who lives downtown Caracas took me for a sight tour of the battle field zones of this year. Last time I was there I was with him and a friend from San Francisco visiting exactly one year ago. I have not visited the downtown area in a year. My friend wanted me to dress appropriately before going downtown, a novelty regarding last year. That meant dark shoes (sneakers are robbed at a fast rate like the Bronx, which seems to look much better than downtown Caracas), dark shirt to look less “white”, sunglasses. I found this amusing but after today tour not that silly…

Well, it was quite a tour. Out of the subway at Capitolio we reached Bolivar square the heart of almost any city in Venezuela. On one side it has the main borough townhall, La Alcaldia de Caracas, in the hands of Bernal, the mayor do-it-all of Chavez (read: organizer of the downtown militia). At the opposite corner there is Caracas city hall of all boroughs, Alcaldia Mayor, that is held by Peña, former chief of staff of Chavez and now one of his fiercest critics and THE most favorite target of chavistas. Between the two town hall stands the “Esquina Caliente” or Hot Corner, a speakers corner of sorts for chavistas, literally under the shadow of La Alcaldia. We could see an interesting collection of posters and other appropriate palimpsests.

We walked to the Alcaldia Mayor. This building has been attacked several times by chavistas mobs that almost made it inside. The façade is bullet ridden, the famous stained glasses are all trashed. Townhall put some painting to make the whole thing look not too shabby and keep working inside.

We then walked around. The downtown area is now in a ruinous state. Two reasons account for this. The Alcaldia de Caracas who is responsible for upkeep has spent its revenues and moneys to organize its gangs of aggression to back up Chavez. And for all sort of corruption schemes one thinks. This of course leads to the second reasons of the general deterioration: the need to keep these hundreds of troops at hand in case of need for a “spontaneous” show of support and other actions such as shooting at buildings holding people perceived as unfriendly. This is conveniently achieved through a significant amount of ghost jobs that justify a whole bunch of this people on payroll. But this is only good for the regulars and head of squads. The “paid per action” folks need something to do during day time. Well, for this we have the “buhoneros” or street vendors. This in Venezuela is something like an institution as the informal commerce has been managing an eon fight with authorities over their wish to sell at street corners. Lenient governments tried to regulate this, without success. Stronger ones tried to clear up sidewalks, but the need of a constant surveillance of course ended up any success as the people in office worry about other activities that might garner them more votes. The fact of the matter is that as in any good capitalist system, this is a supply side phenomenon. That is, Venezuelans seem to like to shop in the street. Things are not necessarily cheaper but they seem so. And you can get all sort of contraband goods, forbidden items such as fireworks, pirated tapes, etc, etc…

But the buhoneros invasion under Bernal has reached unforeseen heights. One reason rumored around is that townhall benefits from it through two ways, the contraband that it lets flow through, and the racket that letting street vendors stay represent for corrupt officials. Another reason is that many buhoneros are just chavistas on payroll that dab in between gigs of “support”. I am not saying that there is no genuine support for Chavez, but TV has clearly shown that there is a structure behind these rallies: people in the background talking on wireless and shooting orders to a few, faces that reappear on screen regularly, etc… So a buhonero stand can consist on two partners, one on call. If you ask me, this is a form of exploitation of human work for the benefit of contraband dealers, dealers and people with political interests.

Most of downtown has become a huge open-air market. The lack of amenities, the need to secure their stands and to sleep in some of them to secure their merchandise, has lead to a complete degradation of sidewalks and an ever-present stench. Today this was particularly spectacular to see. We have entered the dry season so we do not have the benefit of the cleansing rains. And after December 31 street vendors go on “vacation” for a couple of weeks and it is the only time of the year to walk downtown. And La Alcaldia is not even bothering cleaning during this lull… It was awful. Sidewalks are broken, dirty and stained. Restoration efforts are doomed on some old houses as buhoneros set their stand in front. Regular stores have stopped maintaining their façade and lowering their appearance to the lowest common denominator. And buildings are not collapsing for bullet assaults, they just collapse because there is no maintenance. Even congress, an oasis of green and cleanliness is not able, or unwilling, to keep up its outside appearance. The North end is almost as damaged as the nearby buildings.

We did walk around. My friend showed me the different areas that were reached by the April 11 march. The places were shooting took places, where some of the people died. The vantage points that the press climbed to try to document, the streets from where the army charged, etc… He also showed me what has become El Silencio, an ambitious housing complex of the 40ies that used to be on Caracas postcards. It is not anymore. But it was interesting to visit that area and to realize that recovery is still possible, if long, if there ever is a will to make Caracas a real city again. I saw at the same time the degradation that brought Chavez to office, but I also saw that he has made it all worse.

Meanwhile back at the ranch.

A video amateur received by Globovision shows the KLM flight arrival of a group of foreign technicians, mainly from India and the Middle East. 7 of them in first class apparently. Naively they talked to the Venezuelan passengers asking whether they were happy that they were coming to move the tanker ships! Obviously they had no idea of what is going on here. They did not even know where Maracaibo was, the point where supposedly they have to move ships back and forth. At immigration they were shown through a side door to the baggage area without even showing passport and visa. Other passengers complained and apparently the Immigration supervisor laughed at their face and left. Outside word spread and a large spontaneous gathering of people dropping and picking passengers screamed their indignation. These foreign workers hired to save the fatherland managed with military escort to be taken who knows where.

And in town Chavez held a rally at the biggest indoor sporting arena. He made another fiery speech commandeering all networks signals. He had behind him three goons (and I mean it) in military draft, his company lately, I suppose to suggest a war state. They are his body guards that people rumor are Cubans and the government denies, yet they never let them talk just to see if indeed they have Cuban or Venezuelan accent, quite distinctive. The motive? A ceremony to swear in the “volunteers” that will substitute striking teachers and intervene closed schools. Universities were threatened as well. With the pitiful quality of Venezuelan education I wonder what the results will be with political hacks replacing the teachers. The interesting feature is that the private news were not allowed at the press area. Only the government TV and radio. I wonder if CNN was allowed or even tried to go. So we had to rely on the camera work of state network that was very careful to scan the same section to make sure to give an impression of full room. Maybe the room was full, but one could not verify it. Thus evolves the freedom of information.

However there was an interesting piece of news. A representative of the Democratic Coordination, the umbrella organization of the opposition, Timoteo Zambrano, and Carlos Ortega the CTV union leader on top of the opposition fight, left for the US this afternoon. They are to meet among other, the UN secretary, State department officials, AFLCIO leaders and other institutions that want to know what is really going on and how they can help. Return Wednesday.

And to close on a different note. On the ellipse in front of the White House, perhaps a couple of hundred or more Venezuelans did bang pans, wave flags, etc… In front of bemused passerby that probably never hard of Venezuela before. But this was no tropical rally, even with our colorful flag. The only warmth in the air came from the people.

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