Monday 2 July 2012

Impressions from Venezuela III

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

We are now past our half-way mark here in Venezuela, and I feel, to some degree, ‘settled in’. So instead of chronicling our doings over the past fortnight, I shall begin with a theme that I hinted at before but did not elaborate: Venezuelan politics.

‘They Will be Divided’

Most of us could probably only name a handful of the heads-of-state around the world, but Hugo Chavéz would almost certainly be among them. Naturally, before coming to Venezuela, I was curious to visit the country he leads (or rules?). And, as fate would have it, he landed in Caracas at almost the same time we did back in May, returning from medical treatment in Cuba. As we drove through the night streets of the city, we could hear the live reports of his arrival on the radio.

There is no denying that a cult of personality surrounds Chavéz. His photo and his name appear on almost every street corner. His mandate unashamedly proclaims itself a revolution, and advertises itself as a natural extension of the struggle that won the country independence from the Spanish monarchy almost two hundred years ago―though, as far as I am aware, sans armed violence.

Obviously, this is not the place to evaluate Chavéz’s platform. But the one thing I have heard over and over again since arriving is that it is extremely divisive. Those who support Chavéz―the Chavistas―support him whole-heartedly; those who do not support him oppose him bitterly. Between friends (or former friends) and even within families, politics has driven a painful wedge. It is a wedge that seems to exist through much of the world, or at least the Western world these days, but here it is more acute.

We had a brief taste of this a few weeks ago when our superior, Fr. Alfredo, took us to the neighbourhood of a Jesuit parish here in Caracas. It is not the most desperate part of the city, but it is still poor. We visited a couple of the homes of the active parishioners. In one, our hosts were two women, one middle-aged and the other older. They told us a bit about their neighbourhood as well as the weekly fellowship meetings they held in their apartment with other parishioners. Apparently, their meetings were floundering, and the reason was that the Chavistas and the non-Chavistas simply couldn’t get along. The older woman shook her head and said that she didn’t think that politics had any place at all in their meetings; the younger responded that if people couldn’t talk about what mattered to them, why meet at all? The two were obviously friends, on good terms, and reasonable people. But the conversation dwindled into a frustrated silence and then moved onto other topics. As we were leaving, Fr. Alfredo told us that the older woman was an ardent Chavista and the other was an equally strong anti-Chavista. They themselves were able to transcend their differing political views; but their neighbours were not. As a result, the parish is suffering.

Museums and Motor Vehicles

On a lighter note, if there is one benefit of socialism, it is that the museums are free and the parks are clean. We haven’t done much ‘sight-seeing’, but where we have gone we haven’t paid a cent. Perhaps the most delightful―and unexpected―of our visits was to a small gem of a museum in our very own neighbourhood. It is dedicated to the nineteenth-century Venezuelan painter Arturo Michelena. This handsomely restored house was once the artist’s home and studio. We were the only visitors, and the museum’s keeper showed us around and explained the history of the building. It has an impressive collection of his work (many of them sketches) as well as some of his contemporaries’ paintings. As we stepped out of the stillness of the house back into the noisy, run-down street, I wondered how often the museum receives visitors, tucked away as it is in an otherwise unspectacular neighbourhood.

If Museums are free, petrol is almost so. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it. A litre for about eight centímos per litre. In real terms, this is less than one Canadian (or American) cent per litre―and I say in real terms because the Bolívar is over-valued: unofficially, there are about eight and a half Bolívars per dollar: about twice as much as the official exchange rate.

Here is a calculator which gives a rough conversion of what it would cost to fill your tank here, in dollars or euros.

Tank Capacity Refuel Cost*
*Rough conversion, June 2012

So basically, petrol costs nothing. It is almost surreal to drive into a station and realise that the government, essentially, is paying for your fuel―and for full service. It also means that trying to control smuggling of petroleum to neighbouring countries, where fuel is sold at international rates, is almost completely futile. When I mused to someone that eventually prices would have to rise, he responded that there would be a huge outcry if they were increased even a little bit.

Settling In and Moving Out

I mentioned at the beginning that we have passed the half-way mark of our time here and that I feel somewhat settled. The classes continue as normal and we are all making progress. We have continued to visit the various works of the Society here in Caracas―truly impressive in scope―and by now seem to seen them all and shaken everyone’s hand.

But if we have settled in, we will soon move out. In less than a week our classes will end and we will be leaving Caracas for a two-week stay in another region: Eric and I both will be in Maracaibo, the second-largest city―and apparently one of the hottest. But I shall endeavour not to let sweaty finger-tips prevent me from writing another set of Impressions in two weeks, from Maracaibo.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Adam. I couldn't have put it better myself :)