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A Visit to the Colonel


It is less than a month since Colonel Hugo Chavez, the radical and charismatic president of Venezuela, spoke in Moscow to an enraptured crowd of left-wing youth and intelligentsia. Now I am in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, at a big conference organised by the president. It is, so to speak, a return visit.

Hell in Paradise

The first thing that strikes a northerner who comes to a tropical country is the landscape. This is not the first time I?ve been in Latin America, but its always the same. Before your eyes is a completely unaccustomed vista too huge and rich to fit at first into your consciousness. Of course, the vistas in Russia are much larger we know this from our geography lessons. But the Russian expanse opens up only gradually; you don?t perceive it at a glance.

Our landscape is modest; with its rivers, hills and coppices, it is more like chamber music than a symphony. You gain a sense of spaciousness only when you start to move, and this is why Russians love fast travel. In Latin America its different; here everything opens up at once. On one side is the sea, and on the other an endless chain of mountains, overgrown with lush greenery. There?s a great deal of everything, all of it on a huge scale.

You don?t need to move; you can simply stand still. Or better still, you can lie down and absorb the new sensations. The world outside doesn?t urge you to go anywhere; it doesn?t impel you into motion. From the point of view of nature this is clearly paradise, a garden of Eden spreading out for thousands of kilometers. The first signs of civilisation, however, break the harmony. Between the lush mountains stand huge, ugly, dilapidated buildings.

The city of Caracas presents an irrational (to foreign eyes) jumble of shabby skyscrapers and undisguised hovels. Threading between them are hordes of battered old cars and crowds of poorly dressed people. From time to time well-dressed people and expensive cars appear too, but they exist in a sort of parallel world which, to tell the truth, I do not find very interesting. Exactly the same parallel world can be found in Moscow.

At one time Caracas, like many urban centers in Latin America, was a small, comfortable provincial city. But the Yankees found oil here, and then an economic boom began. Historic quarters were levelled to the ground (only the house where Simon Bolivar was born miraculously remained intact). In place of the old buildings, concrete skyscrapers were built, and freeways for the cars. Unfortunately, the prosperity did not last; oil prices started falling, the export revenues were plundered, and the standard of living declined sharply.

The skyscrapers have a depressing air. We were put in the Hilton, in the very center of town. The hotel consists of two massive concrete towers, one of them embellished with the words Caracas Hilton in huge letters completely rusted through. Next to the hotel are two more skyscrapers, even more massive, one of them half burnt-out and abandoned. Some ministry once occupied the middle floors. There was a short circuit, the ministry went up in flames, and along with it all the higher floors. No-one was hurt. Nor is there any sign of renovations.

The most picturesque areas of Caracas are the shantytowns on the mountain slopes. A good half of the population lives there. In elections, these people vote almost unanimously for Chavez. Foreign tourists, however, are not encouraged to visit the shanty-towns; you could get your throat cut. The level of crime in Caracas is so high that local residents, I have the impression, almost take pride in it. They advise us insistently not to go out on the streets after dark, explaining in detail and with relish how to avoid unwelcome encounters. Nature created a paradise, but in this paradise, people have contrived to build their own hell.

The Colonel

In Venezuela, a revolution is taking place. In 1992 Colonel Chavez tried unsuccessfully to stage a coup; he was thrown in jail, and became a popular hero. Winning election as president, he began a struggle against poverty. As luck would have it, the coming to power of the new regime coincided with a rise in world oil prices. The president decided to restore order in the state oil company PDVSA, the revenues from which had earlier been shamelessly plundered.

Before long there was an attempted coup, but it failed after encountering massive resistance. Then the management of the company shut down production. In the end Chavez won; the old managerial team were sent packing, a reorganisation was carried out, and the result was that from somewhere, an extra four billion dollars promptly appeared in the budget. The company?s offices were handed over to one of Venezuela?s universities.

Little by little, the state apparatus is being transformed, but the results are not turning out exactly as expected. Corruption has been curtailed, but efficiency has not improved. If some matter would earlier be fouled up at a cost of three million, this cost has fallen, and it will now be fouled up for only two million. I experienced the remarkable qualities of the Venezuelan bureaucracy while I was still making preparations to go to the conference. First, I was sent a ticket for the wrong date.

Then, after canceling one ticket, they neglected to issue another. Then they booked a ticket, but did not confirm payment. Strangely, I still managed to get to Caracas. Magical realism! Meanwhile, the stereotype image of Latin American inefficiency is not always borne out. On the technical side, things may be on a very high level.

People in Venezuela adore new technologies. I spent two hours waiting for the young person who was supposed to prepare my identity card. But once he had appeared, the electronic system was switched on, and within half a minute all the problems were solved; the data were all loaded into the computer, and I had a beautiful plastic card complete with my photo. Chavez appeared frequently before us, making speeches each of which averaged about two hours.

Toward the end we got used to it, and were taking regular visits by the president for granted. Once the colonel had finished his speech, he started talking with people, putting his bodyguards on edge. The squads of bodyguards were constantly changing, and their expressions were extremely troubled.

To tell the truth, they worked very professionally; they did not stop the president talking with his supporters, but at the same time kept a very close watch on everything that was happening. Chavez?s speeches are relatively simple. They are not like those of Fidel Castro, a professional orator with aristocratic features and a lawyers training, nor like those of Brazilian President Lula, accustomed to addressing trade union meetings and workers demonstrations.

Chavez is a talkative colonel, of the kind found in our army too. He is not especially well versed in the art of rhetoric. He talks with those around him, reflects on life, and has trouble stopping. People like it. The colonel is already making for the exit when a woman starts calling out, Chavez, I?ve wanted for a long time to shake your hand!

The president turns around and goes to shake her hand, but on the way notices an acquaintance and stops to chat with him. How are things with your wife? And your daughter? The crowd of supporters continues pressing forward. The leader of the republic is gradually wearying of the endless handshakes, but is trying not to show it. Finally, urged on by his bodyguards, he makes it to the door. The hall is blocked for several minutes. To judge by everything, speeches to the public, handshaking, and conversations with workers about life take up a good deal of the president?s time. There is just one small mystery: when does he get to do any work?

At the Grass Roots

Critically-thinking intellectuals are never satisfied with revolutionary speeches, and everyone has wanted to see how the revolution is going at the local level. And so, we were taken to the grass roots. The conference delegates were divided into several groups and sent to various parts of the republic. I was dispatched to a particularly remote region the state of Lara.

We had to fly there in an analogue of the sturdy, somewhat old-fashioned aircraft of Russian agriculture. After carefully surveying his six passengers, the pilot began seating them in a particular order: the fattest in the middle of the aircraft, and those who looked somewhat lighter towards the tail.

Otherwise the plane might flip over, he explained nonchalantly. Once in flight, the passengers had to change seats; the initial estimates of our weight had obviously been wrong. After this, the group of Puerto Ricans I was traveling with were smitten with an irresistible desire for a drink.

By a strange coincidence, a supply of whisky and tequila had been laid in beforehand. For some time after I arrived in the state of Lara I could not quite understand were we being shown things here, or on the contrary, were we ourselves on display? Whatever the case, we were in the real backwoods. Few people come here even from Puerto Rico, not to speak of Russia. One way or another, the impressions were powerful. First we were taken to a tumble-down shed with a slate roof. On entering, we found two magnificently equipped dentists chairs and two Cuban dentists who day and night were fixing the jaws of Venezuelans. An important achievement of the revolution is free dental care.

There is no doubt that the system works; all over Caracas I saw young women with dental braces of the sort which in Europe are usually fitted to twelve-year-olds. The masses have felt the changes: everyone has started getting their teeth fixed. Our welcoming hosts in the state of Lara were eager to show off their achievements. We were taken to a village general store, a municipal shop where for fixed prices working people could buy everything they needed. The goods were supplied by state companies and local cooperatives.

All sorts of basic items were on sale – milk, bread, flour, baby food, and for some reason, no fewer than ten varieties of ketchup. In the local climate, this was obviously among the goods of first necessity. Our next stop was by some shacks, where a dining-room for poor people had been set up.

People would prepare food at home, the state would provide them with foodstuffs and they had to feed themselves and help feed their neighbours. On the wall were the rules of the dining-room, along with a placard bearing a portrait of Chavez. Next to these was Che Guevara. Next again, a little smaller, was Batman. A friendly local official explained how everything was set up. The food only looks unappetising, he said. In fact, it?s very nutritious. An old man was carrying a pan full of food out of the building.

In the rules on the wall it was written clearly that taking food out was forbidden. Noting my surprised glance, the official immediately explained, This is an exception he has a sick wife. But we always send someone to make sure its her hes feeding. Eventually we arrived at the governor?s palace, a beautiful old mansion surrounded on all sides by ugly concrete boxes. The governor himself was a serving military pilot, an African-Venezuelan. He told us clearly and specifically what was succeeding and where there were difficulties.

He was one of the people who might be called the workhorses of the revolution. Gathered in the main hall were thirty or so people who were taking part in programs connected with the struggle against illiteracy. One after another they came before us and gave accounts of the work that had been done. In the state of Lara, illiteracy had been wiped out.

The Puerto Ricans demanded to be shown, as they had been promised, a formerly illiterate person who had been taught to read. Unfortunately, the organisers of the event had forgotten to bring such a person along. There was, however, a bearded man present who had undergone retraining in an institution something like the Workers

Faculties in the USSR of the 1920s. He related how he had dreamed all his life of becoming a teacher, but had not had the chance to get an education. Now he had been given all the requisite knowledge, and could himself teach others. Inspired with enthusiasm, the people in the hall began shouting slogans, Hugo Chavez will not go!

And so, we returned to Caracas. A Venezuelan woman who was accompanying us complained, The people in Lara so much wanted to talk to you. But they had clearly set out to put us on display. In the lobby of the hotel I encountered an American who had been taken to another state. We exchanged impressions. No, he said thoughtfully, that was obviously not a Potemkin village. Everything was too run-down.

Democracy

From his appearance, Chavez leaves no doubt as to his origins. He is descended from Indians. Among Latin American leaders, this is something distinctly unusual. The old Creole elite, that has ruled here for centuries, does not hide its indignation. How can the descendants of conquistadors tolerate having a mestizo in power? The opposition in Venezuela complains constantly about one stricture or another, but compared to what we see in Russia, this is a model democracy.

An effort is made not to appoint opponents of the president to government service. I rack my brains, trying to recall if I have ever encountered an open opponent of President Putin among today?s Russian state functionaries. Putin spent his first four years in office trying to drive two independent television channels off the airwaves. As well as two state channels, Venezuela has three private ones that are openly pro-opposition. In the hotel during the evening I turn on the television set. First, a state channel.

Tedious, poorly produced propaganda, together with provincial news it?s impossible to watch. I switch over to an opposition channel. Uninterrupted abuse directed at Chavez, and biased news programs. It?s impossible to watch. Venezuelans have long since stopped paying attention to the television. Not long ago a new press law was adopted, a law which the opposition regards as infringing press freedom. I have it before me. Compared to what applies in Russia, everything is exceedingly liberal. True, explicit calls for armed revolt are forbidden. The ludicrous thing here is that such appeals have been made periodically on the opposition channels. Everyone is used to them, and no-one takes much notice.

The soap operas are more interesting. In the post-Soviet republics, provision is made for the holding of referendums, and Chavez has had his referendum too. But unlike its counterparts in the former USSR, the Venezuelan referendum was not about extending the president?s term in office, but about ending his term ahead of schedule.

This is among the provisions of the new constitution which Chavez introduced: any elected figure may be subjected to this procedure once half of his or her term has passed. The opposition had trouble collecting signatures, and some of the signatures they had were considered doubtful. The initiative group was given additional time to correct mistakes and submit new lists. In Latin America, the rigging of elections is just as commonplace as in our part of Europe. Consequently, the opposition can always find a pretext for taking to the streets (the Ukrainian and Georgian events are examples of a typical Third World situation).

The task of the authorities in Caracas was to stop events from developing in this fashion. Instead of preparing water cannon and grooming experts who would demonstrate that malpractice had not occurred, the authorities in Venezuela chose a somewhat unorthodox route: to count the votes honestly. The voting system involved double counting, and included an international audit with the participation of American experts.

Considering the extremely hostile relationship between Chavez and the US administration, it would be hard to imagine more exacting monitors. Venezuelans first recorded their vote on an electronic machine resembling the automatic teller machines in a bank. Then the machine issued a receipt, which would be deposited in a ballot box. The receipts and the electronic votes were counted separately, and the results compared. Almost half of the positions on the electoral commission were assigned to opponents of the president. Some voting districts and regions were chosen by lot for the auditors to conduct a recount. But however the count was made, there was only one outcome: Chavez had won.

To Moscow, to Moscow!

Sheremetyevo Airport greets me not with frost and snow, but with mud and slush. I feel a strong urge to wheeze and cough. All the same faces are back on the television. Parliamentary deputies from the United Russia bloc explain how much better education and health care will become when everything is finally privatised and commercialised. Tomorrow I am to visit the dentist. I had better get the money ready.

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