[Marxism] Chasing Chávez: The Other Havana (Wall Street Journal)
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Sat Aug 26 06:13:05 MDT 2006
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The Wall Street Journal
August 26, 2006
Chasing Chávez: The Other Havana
With tighter restrictions on Americans' travel to Cuba,
Venezuela is marketed as an alternative
By STAN SESSER
August 26, 2006; Page P1
RIO CHICO, Venezuela -- Judy Lubin, who runs a Rockville, Md.-based
public-relations company for nonprofit groups, is taking her first
vacation in four years. She's spending most of it here at the Rio
Chico Hotel, a dingy, broken-down place that's surrounded by a fence
topped with barbed wire. The shower is a pipe poking through the wall
that spouts cold water. The town isn't in much better shape; the
first business on the main street to open in the morning, at 8 a.m.,
is a liquor store.
Mixing Politics and Pleasure: The annual San Juan Festival in
For Ms. Lubin, who learned about the Venezuela trip when she looked
for a Cuba vacation on the Internet, the Rio Chico Hotel is hardly
her first choice for lodgings. But she and 15 other Americans are
sacrificing comfort to take a look at a country mired in controversy.
They want to see first-hand life under Venezuelan President Hugo
Chávez, who is well known for his populist rhetoric and pledges to
use oil revenue to benefit poor people, as well as his courting of
repressive regimes like Cuba and Iran.
"I'd never heard of 'Afro-Venezuelan' culture," says Ms. Lubin, of
the term used by our tour operator for the impoverished black
minority community that makes its home near Rio Chico. "Who are they?
How are they treated here? I like being able to learn about things."
Political tourism, much like ecotourism, appeals to people looking to
experience a place beyond its well-traveled routes. While in the
past, some might have made such a trek to Cuba, tighter restrictions
on "educational" travel imposed by the Bush administration in 2004
have limited these trips. The move was a bid to win Cuban-American
voters in Miami in the lead up to the elections.
Now, some of the same Americans who would have visited Cuba are
eyeing another politically controversial country whose leader is
Fidel Castro's closest ally. Earlier this month, Mr. Chávez visited
the bedridden Castro and met with interim president Raul Castro.
Although the two countries differ in many ways -- Venezuela, for one,
is a democracy, albeit a contentious and sometimes violent one --
Venezuela may strike some travelers as the new Cuba. And with Mr.
Chávez's globetrotting attempts to form an anti-U.S. alliance making
headlines lately, the country seemed like an apt choice to experience
A Bolivarian school in Barlovento
Global Exchange is one of the few tour operators that lead political
trips to countries around the world. It is decidedly left-leaning,
which means its enthusiasm for Mr. Chávez tends to ignore criticism
of his government for increasingly going down an autocratic path.
"Something remarkable is happening in Venezuela," says an
introduction to the tour on the group's Web site. "The lives of
millions of Venezuelans are improving as historic wrongs are being
righted." (Except for Israel, which as the cradle of Christianity
gets tours from right-leaning religious groups, the American right
has been less embracing of foreign political travel.)
Indeed, my tour primarily comprised visits to see projects that
purportedly demonstrate how oil revenues are making life better for
the large number of impoverished Venezuelans -- although critics say
the billions of dollars being spent are buying political loyalty
without attempting to provide real solutions to the country's endemic
problems. For instance, we spent a considerable amount of time in
poor communities of black Venezuelans, descendents of African slaves.
We also visited a community center involved in adult education in
Caracas with a portrait of Che Guevara painted on the outside wall,
and a women's sewing cooperative established with low-interest
Global Exchange's tour-group hotel in Rio Chico
Despite this, leaders of the group also went out of their way to find
us different points of view, including a talk with a member of the
Chávez opposition. Global Exchange arranges its own itineraries, and
no money goes into government coffers.
Though it's hardly a mass-market product -- last year, 80 visitors
went on five trips to Venezuela -- Global Exchange says the program
is gaining traction, with 400 people going on 17 trips this year. And
while it used to send as many as six tours a month to Cuba, it's
offering only a handful this year. "Once Bush says Venezuela is a
threat to the hemisphere, people want to see for themselves what is
happening," says Zach Hurwitz, who heads the Latin American program
for Global Exchange.
For Venezuela, the additional tourism is looked upon as a source of
national pride, as well as a way to convince Americans of the
earnestness of Mr. Chávez's self-styled Bolívarian revolution, aimed
at spreading socialism throughout Latin America. Mr. Chávez, like
Russian President Vladimir Putin, doesn't miss a chance to
demonstrate that oil is transforming the world's geopolitical scene.
As one manifestation, Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's national oil
company, last winter provided deeply discounted heating oil to some
low-income residents of New York and Philadelphia.
My tour group was not dominated by knee-jerk leftists -- it included
a diverse array from an economist to a private investigator and a
psychotherapist. David Mokofsky, a statistician for the San Francisco
Police Department, notes that "here we're actually hearing
Venezuelans answer questions."
How much we were learning on our trip, though, is a question with no
easy answer. For a properly skeptical traveler the persuasiveness of
all this is debatable. To visit a few projects is a far cry from
concluding that oil revenue is succeeding in making life better for
On the positive side, our hosts didn't object to critical questions,
either, and they at least tried to answer them. The places we saw
were impressive. In Barlovento, home of the black fishermen, we
toured an airy and cheerful elementary school. At a year-old,
170-member women's sewing cooperative we met women proud of being
able to earn a decent living and participate in management decisions.
TRIP PLANNER: VENEZUELA
CARACAS HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS: There are two five-star hotels worth
considering. Hotel Gran Melia Caracas has rooms starting at $175.
(www.granmeliacaracas.solmelia.com). Rooms at JW Marriott are from
$159. (Tel: 011-58-212-957-2222). The favorite Caracas restaurant of
Emily Kurland, a Global Exchange tour leader, is La Cita, which
offers upscale Spanish seafood. (Tel: 011-58-212-572-8180.) It's
advisable to take the warnings about crime seriously and not walk
around alone after dark.
GETTING AROUND: Arturo Perez, who speaks fluent English and often
serves as a driver for Global Exchange customers, can be hired as a
driver and guide on personal tours for $40 a day. Tours can include
trips to low-income neighborhoods and community centers to meet
locals. (Tel: 011-58-414-331-6932).
OUT OF CARACAS: Three of the best-known tourist spots in Venezuela
won't give you much of an insight into the policies of the Chávez
administration. But you will experience the three highlights of
Venezuela's natural setting: jungles, mountains and beaches. Angel
Falls, one of the world's tallest waterfalls, is surrounded by jungle
and can be reached only by plane. Fly from Caracas to the town of
Canaima and take a boat or a sightseeing flight to the falls. Merida,
a pleasant university town, is surrounded by mountains, and tour
agencies there offer hiking, rafting and mountain-biking trips.
Archipielago Los Roques is a group of islands off the Caribbean coast
famous for snorkeling and scuba diving.
But were these typical of what's going on in Venezuela, and are they
viable enough to provide a model for combating the poverty endemic to
Latin America? On that question, the tour provided few answers. The
sewing co-op prospered because of contracts with a government
ministry, not by competing for business with the low-wage textile
factories of Asia.
When two of us spoke privately with a teacher at a Bolívarian
elementary school, she said there were so few of these in the area
that this one was besieged with applicants. Named for Venezuela's
independence leader, Simón Bolívar, these schools have programs that
are particularly advantageous for children of poor families. Unlike
other schools, they have all-day classes that allows parents to hold
No one could accuse Caracas, where our tour started, of being a
Potemkin village. The warnings of our group organizers about crime
were more than perfunctory; the city has by many accounts experienced
a surge of crime in recent years that makes it inadvisable to walk
anywhere after dark. The day before I arrived, one Global Exchange
group leader was confronted by a teenage boy who threatened to pull a
gun. The next day this group leader and I were walking on a crowded
downtown street during the afternoon rush hour when a young man
jumped me from behind and attempted, unsuccessfully, to pry my mobile
phone out of my pants pocket. When I shouted for help, none of the
dozens of passersby around me responded.
After the initial days of drawn-out meetings, it was a pleasure to go
to the tiny, picturesque town of Curiepe to experience the three-day
San Juan Festival, the biggest annual celebration of the descendents
of Africans brought to the country as slaves. A remarkably colorful
event with hardly any tourists to see it, the festival commemorates
the three days around the summer solstice when Venezuelan slaves,
forced otherwise to work seven days a week, were given a brief
vacation. It's a lively -- sometimes too lively, given the amount of
alcohol consumed -- mixture of Catholic prayer, pagan rituals,
frenzied drum playing and wild dancing with heavily sexual
On the way back to the Caracas airport, the jarring reality of
Venezuela today -- a country with enough turmoil and confusion to
make any predictions about its future perilous -- once again
interceded. Because the main road had huge traffic jams, my driver
took side roads to save time. One of these roads was blocked with
barricades manned by several young men, who wouldn't let cars pass
without a contribution for "road maintenance." Just as with Cuba,
there would be plenty for any tourist to talk about back at home.
Write to Stan Sesser at stan.sesser at awsj.com1
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