Sunday, December 26, 2004

Chavez, China, and Christmas

Venezuela is a country with a very strong Christmas tradition. We have developed quite a repertoire of Christmas music, from gaïtas to aguinaldos (villancicos). We have a specific set of Christmas dishes, with Hallaca, Pernil, Ensalada de gallina, Pan de jamon and Dulce de lechosa, and their local variants (1). Our decoration was very big on Nativity scenes before the Christmas tree became ubiquitous. Regionally we had some well established customs such as Paradura del Niño in the Andes. New year's eve became also very strong and served as the second bookend of the most festive week of the year which even included our April's fool day equivalent on December 28. (2)

As a consequence of all of these customs, extensive days off, and vacations requirement for workers, many business started to set their annual vacation for 2 to 3 weeks around Christmas. Early January has become a big vacation time. Caracas loses between 10 and 20% of its inhabitants as people go to visit relatives or go on vacation. Between Christmas and New Year at least half of the country is not at work. Even the president used to retire for a few days to one of the presidential lodges such as Orchila Island or Kavanayen. Even some papers stopped printing for a few days and TV became boring as most anchorman and TV shows took a break, leaving their Christmas special taped long in advance. In other words the country goes off for about a month with its peak inactivity in the early days of January.

But this year things have changed. Political activity took place until the 24 as new political arrests were ordered. And Chavez left for a China trip, during Christmas. That is right, Hugo Chavez, the president of the bolivarian republic was in Beijing or whereabouts on Christmas days signing business deals, offering China more oil than for the US and ranting over the one China policy dismissing democratic Taiwan and speculating freely that Mao and Bolivar would have been good friends. Quite a few presents there for human right abuse prone regime of China.

Is there a meaning to this? More than likely.

Besides trying to become the most anti US leader around, Chavez wants to leave HIS mark wherever he can. And why should not be our Christmas customs a target for the bolivarian glorious revolution in its attempt at creating the new Venezuelan man? Let's have a look at the evidence.

Chavez is not a religious person. Nominally a Roman Catholic he has embraced the Venezuelan evangelical movement who mostly supports him (3). He has fought real hard with the catholic church. He has worn all sorts of religious ornaments from our Native Americans. He is known to be superstitious and well versed in our local lore (4). If he talks of a multipolar world, some of the pseudo intellectuals that try to build an ideological construct for him are trying to promote our connection to Islam as being as important as the ones we have with Christendom. Forgetting that whatever connection we have with Islam comes through Spain Islamic period that ended in 1492, the year Columbus landed in America.

Some signs of that pro Islam bent are unequivocal (as a reaction to the US as the main "Christian country"?). The newly elected governor of Anzoategui, Tarek Saab has been denied an US visa for its link with some Islamic sectors. Fraudulent Venezuelan passports have been seized by US customs. Other links to Islamic groups have been reported. Chavez has consistently courted the Islamic states, in particular the non democratic ones of Algeria, Lybia, Iran and even Saddam's Iraq (though their membership in O.P.E.C. is reason enough to visit them). And let's not forget the recent raid on the Hebraica social club of Caracas WHILE Chavez was visiting Iran a couple of weeks ago.

Thus how not to see that China visit as an omen of things to come? How is it that Chavez who promoted his family in a famous cadena during the Recall Election campaign, on his birthday, is not spending the holidays with his relatives? I am absolutely convinced that the China visit dates could have been juggled around. The Chinese of course do not care and are probably quite happy to receive Chavez at a date where they cannot get anyone else to visit thus freeing their calendar for more important visitors (while some of Chavez followers might be made to believe that Chavez is so important that the Chinese leadership had to receive him at Christmas...). And let's not forget that Castro, Chavez's mentor, has done all what he could to demolish the Cuban Christmas traditions, relenting in recent years only to pick up this year a new fight with the US interest section in Havana over some light decorations...

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(1) Stuffed corn dough wrapped in banana tree leaves, baked ham sometime with pineapple, Hen based salad, Ham bread, Green papaya sweets. Hallaca has three main variants: Andes, Central, Oriental.
(2) All in all, Christmas and related activities last from mid November (La Chiquinquira in Maracaibo), to the first week of February, (La Candelaria). In Maracaibo Christmas trees and lights are up for at least 2 full months.
(3) Chavez tone and exacerbated rhetoric resembles more the fire and brimstone preaching of your local Pentecostal preacher than a "normal" political speech.
(4) Consulting an astrologer or a witch doctor in Venezuelan political circles is not looked down.

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