Saturday, April 02, 2005

A personal view on recent Venezuela history.

When my parents grew up, Venezuela had a set of institutions and infrastructures that allowed them to fulfill their potential. The country was not in the first world but it was far from being a third world country at the time. My parents were not rich, but they studied in good public schools, went to public Universities, graduated and had access to relatively affordable housing. When I grew up, they had one car, so in many cases we had to use public transportation. It was somehow complicated because my mom would sit me in her lap so that I would not pay for the ride, but the system worked. When I got sick, I was treated in Caracas Children’s hospital, a public hospital. There were also huge public vaccination campaigns. We were put in long lines to open our mouth to get a very sweet red liquid called the “polio vaccine”, in other cases it was not so fun when they would come with real injections for all sort of unknown diseases. At the time, I understood the principle that if I had gotten the disease before, the government would not come for me with their big needles. So, whenever I could, I would try to catch some disease like measles or mumps, first to stay home and second to prevent those government nurses to get me the next time. That was Venezuela in the sixties.

I have always thought that Venezuelan problems came with the Arab oil embargo (no wonder Miguel’s blog is called “the Devil’s Excrement”). Oil prices were multiplied by four overnight. All of the sudden, there was so much money that the whole economy was distorted. Venezuela became “Venezuela Saudita”. When Venezuelans traveled abroad, everything seemed so cheap because everything was so expensive at home. Housing prices that had been stable for decades started to increase so much that it was extremely difficult for a young professional or University professor to buy a house on his salary. All of a sudden, things that had been within the reach of everybody became unreachable for those that lived on a salary. For those that lived on a business, it was a flourishing time and soon there was a very active medium class that had an amazing standard of living.

That was the time when many poor people from Colombia and other Latin American Countries came to Venezuela in search of a better future. They installed themselves in the “barrios” of the big cities where lived those that could not afford proper housing. In those slums one could have, however, the latest color TVs and electronic equipments. The energy was stolen from the public posts and Electric Companies such as Electricidad de Caracas just increased everyone else’s bill to compensate for the stolen power. Nobody complained.

It was a time of optimism and huge government programs. Excellent Universities were founded and ambitious scholarship programs to study abroad were put in place. Everybody had access to those programs and the subsidized Universities became a real social melting pot where the rich kid from Altamira and the poor one from the slums studied side by side. It was the time the oil industry was nationalized and the time when the government decided to invest in a new government company to maintain the Venezuelan oil industry. It was the birth of PDVSA. There were also many new heavy industries been founded in the South of Venezuela and the government had huge panels in Caracas that said “Jovenes al Sur” (The young to the South!).

Somehow along the road, oil prices collapsed and the petro-economy did not sustain itself. The social and economic problems that were created by the massive arrival of petro-dollars got wider. Nostalgic of the good old days, Venezuelans re-elected the man that was in place when the bonanza started, Carlos Andres Perez, in a superstitious hope that he could bring back the good old days.

Perez was a man of his time. He understood that he could not use the same strategy this time around. He surrounded himself with young non-political professionals and started the hard job of fixing the economy. It was tough, the disappearance of some subsidies led to price increases. People from the slums got down to Caracas in desperate protest in what was called the “Caracazo”. Perez many political enemies got advantage of the situation and in veiled fashion supported the infamous coup attempt of Hugo Chavez on February 4, 2002. The Pandora box had been opened. The democratic rule had been cut.

Sadly, Venezuelan economic indexes were improving, a sign that the tough measures were making effect. Carlos Andres’ old foes helped by a sympathetic press found a reason to impeach him. The country lived at that time in a French Revolution like environment in which Perez and anybody that would defend him would almost be considered a traitor and be pointed out in public. The climate was so extremist that pictures of the Supreme Court judges that had voted against the impeachment appeared in the local press so that people would recognize them. I remember how I, who had never voted for Perez or AD (Accion Democratica, Perez' party), wrote on an e-mail a moderate view on how I disagreed with the situation. My mailbox was soon full of insults.

So, in the end, Venezuelans got what they wanted: they got rid of Carlos Andres and, in a few years, and after a suspicious pardon obtained from also former president, and Carlos Andres’ foe, Rafael Caldera, elected Hugo Chavez. He was a putchist but charismatic leader that, according to the people that voted for him, would lead Venezuela to change.

This time, they were not wrong. Venezuela has definitely changed.

For the worse.

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