Mubarak has gone. America’s firm ally, an icon of stability and cooperation in an otherwise volatile region, was the lynch-pin for containing the myriad doomsday scenarios that pundits love to mull over. And yet, at the end of his thirty years, we learned that Mubarak’s stability was nothing more than a pressure cooker. Locking up free speech, running a corrupt economy that shirked investment, was empty of opportunity and unable to change with the rest of the world, stifling a burgeoning population fully aware of the better lives to be had in a freer society. It should come as no surprise that the regime shattered in the fantastic fashion that it did. Repressive regimes built upon rapidly growing and engaged societies slowly calcify. After decades of economic stagnation, institutional decay, and social humiliation, things fall apart. Now all eyes are on the Middle East, but there are other, less Western friendly Mubaraks across the globe. One, to our south, resplendent with his newly attained dictatorial powers, seems to be rapidly projecting his country on a similar path.
Last week was the twelfth anniversary of the beginning of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. Those twelve years have brought increased crime, deterioration of infrastructure, and rapid inflation, as well as substantial emigration of the middle and upper class citizens that settled there in the mid 20th century. The following is an account of my recent experience as I passed through Caracas on my way to Ecuador. The experience was, to say the least, strange and disheartening.
As we exited the airplane from Miami to Caracas we were met by a disinterested looking man in a black Santa Barbara Airlines polo asking “¿Vas a Quito? ¿Vas a Quito?” (Going to Quito?) “Sí” we answered, joining a small group of others making the journey. A few minutes later we were escorted to an empty lobby adjacent to a much larger area for immigration.
We were told that at the moment there was no plane to Quito, and that they expected to have a flight available for us by 11:00 pm that night. We were then told that while we waited we would be taken to a hotel and given dinner, and then brought back for the flight.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said a man standing beside us with his wife and two kids. “We’ve been through this before. I doubt they even have a plane available to fly us to Quito.” The man, Marco, who works for an American airline company and lives in Miami, then proceeded to tell us that two years ago he and his family were told the same story and were taken to what the airline personnel told them was a “five star hotel”. Arriving at the hotel they learned to their chagrin that the hotel was actually named “Five Star Hotel” and was in reality a run-down building situated in a violent slum north of Caracas, near the beach. They waited more than a day, unable to leave their room, the door to which had to be kept shut with a suitcase. They were also warned that the neighborhood was dangerous and there had been a murder the night before. Finally they received a call, were picked up in a bus, and flown to Quito.
In any other city the prospect of being driven around in a bus and dropped in a crummy hotel would certainly have been an inconvenience, but not something unusual. In Caracas however, it is another matter. Caracas is a dangerous place. In fact, it is the most dangerous city in the world by numbers, more deadly than Baghdad. In 2009 4,644 civilians died from violence in Iraq, in the same year more than 16,000 died in Venezuela. Caracas itself has a murder rate of 200 per 100,000, which makes it the murder capital of the world.
At the airport, as we pondered our darkening future, we were joined by sixty or seventy more Ecuadorians arriving from Madrid. They were told the same story; that there was a delay, and that we were all going to a hotel to wait things out. They were unhappy. Soon many of them had encircled the man who had greeted us and the short, stocky, unfriendly looking woman that had joined him. Tensions began to rise and the group began yelling at the representatives, demanding to know why there was no plane, and if we were really going to fly at 11pm. It was now nearly 5pm and many of us wondered what rationale lay behind taking us to a hotel for just a couple of hours, unless of course they intended simply to get us out of the airport and out of their hair. A soldier and a police officer entered the circle, the group dispersed.
A half hour later we were standing on the street waiting to be loaded into buses. The air was heavy and hot, and smelled of diesel exhaust. Young men with tight clothes and heavily gelled hair were driving up on dirt bikes and whispering “What do you need? What do you need?”
“They are changing dollars”, my friend, a better Spanish speaker than I, told me.
As families strolled out of the airport they would saunter by the men on motorbikes, seeming not to speak at all, and after a subtle exchange they would hop into their taxi and be gone. The guards nearby were either bored or unaware. Inflation in Venezuela is the highest in the South American continent, hovering around 30% a year. In an attempt to control the rapid devaluation of the Bolivar, Chavez has set limits on the how many dollars can be exchanged for the currency. On the black market, which we had just stumbled upon, and which did not seem to be too concerned about secrecy, the exchange rate is much more forgiving for Venezuelans trying to hold on to their wealth.
It was 6:30 and already dark when we were loaded onto the bus. We wound through the barrios north and west of the airport. The city was thronging with life, cafes and fruit stands were packed, traffic was thick and slow, the streets were dirty and crowded, and the sweltering humidity had the effect of making the barrio feel as if it were alive itself. On the walls and buildings were tile mosaics, and painted portraits of socialist all-stars like Ché. Further along, on a collapsing retaining wall was scrawled in spray paint comunismo es pobreza, “communism is poverty.”
We entered the hotel to find that it was, surprisingly, a very nice place. The walls were stone, and on the second floor there was a balcony with a pool, blasting Michael Jackson’s music. Across the street were the shores of the Caribbean, adorned with a nearly empty tiki bar bordered by a sidewalk that was falling into the sea. It was now nearly 7:30, and we were convinced that we would be here for at least the night, if not several days. We were fed a meal and given a room.
Ninety minutes later we were back on the bus and on the way to the airport. The whole group, which numbered around one hundred, felt relieved, but was also puzzled. How can the airline profit when it spends a couple thousand dollars bussing people to a hotel for less than a two hour stay? Santa Barbara Airlines is a private company based out of Venezuela. However it seems that their operations are heavily interfered with by the government. According to another travel account I found, Santa Barbara uses US dollars to make payments on maintenance or other company purchases. The dollars are purchased with an account in Miami, but the Venezuelan government has to approve the transfer of dollars before the purchase can be made. An inefficient process to say the least. It certainly seemed that something equally illogical, and probably corrupt, was behind our runaround in Caracas.
Upon returning to the airport we were placed in a line for nearly two hours, while the staff of the airline tried to get us over our next hurdle. The government had charged each passenger a $40 airport tax. This tax, ubiquitous in Latin America, is charged to everyone who leaves the country via airport. Those on layover are not charged, as they never leave the airport itself. We had, however, left the airport, so the tax was enforced. This precipitated another angry crowd, and more angry insults. This time the staff hid behind the counter, at times laying down to rest while waiting to hear from some higher up. Eventually, again to our surprise and relief, the airline paid the tax, another $4,000 out of their pocket, apparently to keep us comfortable for all of two hours.
In the airport Chavez has gone to great lengths to advertise the revolution. Huge banners hang from the ceiling with slogans hailing the accomplishments of the revolution. Diminished infant mortality says one, Increased the production of corn by 132% says another, and perhaps the best states Increased the size of the growth of our children. I had to ask a friend if I was reading this correctly, but literally the revolution has made children bigger, if you believe it. Each banner had the large title Vivir en Socialismo “to live in socialism.” Having only been in the country a handful of hours I felt as though I saw quite a bit of the revolution, enough to see what happens when one person slowly squeezes the life out of a country for the sake of a revolution discarded by the rest of the world, even by its most famous living relic, Fidel Castro. Last week marked the twelfth anniversary of the beginning of Chavez’s revolucion. One can only cringe to think of what twelve more might bring.