The '92 Coup d'État
It was February 4, 1992, the day after my sister's wedding. I awoke to military helicopters, tanks, and gunshots. The TV echoed the same sounds I heard outside my window.
I was only six years old, but I remember it vividly. My mom had allowed my little brother and me to stay home that day because we had stayed up so late the night before. We would have stayed home that day anyway, given that my home country, Venezuela, was going through a coup d'état.
I didn't understand what that meant, even after my parents explained it to me. I sat down and watched the television with my family. The more I watched, the more scared I became. I saw tanks circulating through the city, men in military uniforms with big guns, the helicopters flying aggressively, and the empty streets of Caracas. I felt as if I were watching scenes similar to the war movies my dad liked to watch in our living room. I thought something bad would happen to us. My parents reassured me nothing would.
The phone kept ringing. Friends and family wanted to find out if everybody was safe. An hour later, my sister walked in the house with her new husband. The hotel where they were staying for their wedding night was far from our house but very close to the Casona (the president's house). They got very scared with all the sounds, so they decided to come to our house. For most of the day, we waited in front of the TV, watching the news, to see what would happen to our government.
I asked my parents a lot of questions. Why did someone want to take the president out? I was curious. My parents explained that the people of Venezuela weren't pleased with the current government. The president had put in motion a program that controlled prices on many goods and that this had affected the poor very much. They explained how in the '60s and '70s, Venezuela enjoyed good economic times because of high oil prices. Later, oil-producing countries raised the oil output, and this made oil prices go down, which hurt Venezuela for years. People were tired of corrupt governments, and this military group had decided to do something about it. My parents didn't like the current president either, but they worried that a military government wouldn't be any better. The military people weren't qualified or prepared to run a country.
Late in the afternoon, President Carlos Andres Perez announced that the situation was under control. They had caught the military rebels. The coup left fourteen soldiers dead and 50 soldiers and 80 civilians injured1. One of the rebels kept coming on TV as they escorted him to jail. He was wearing the typical military uniform and a red béret. He declared that their mission had failed, for now, but that other possibilities would arise in the near future. He also ordered the rest of the rebels outside of Caracas to surrender. That was the first time that Hugo Chavez had been on National Television.
It was obvious that Chavez was comfortable in front of the cameras. Of course, I didn't pay much attention to him at the time. I was too young. After they surrendered and the rebels were put in jail, everything went back to normal in Venezuela. Months later, in November 27, 1992, a second coup was attempted, partly commanded by Chavez from jail, but the mission failed once again.
It was December 6 of 1998. I was thirteen years old, too young to vote in that day's presidential elections. I didn't care much for politics, but I knew my parents were going to vote for anybody but that military lunatic, who had been in jail just six years ago for leading the '92 coup d'état. The rest of the country, however, thought the opposite. Chavez won 56.2% of votes, the second highest percentage in Venezuela's democratic history2. Hugo Chavez was elected president mostly because of his public charisma. The Venezuelan people were tired of corrupt governments, crime and poverty. Chavez said he was going to save the country. He had no political experience. He was just a retired Lieutenant Colonel, but the majority of Venezuelans thought he was just what the country needed.
Chavez's 13-year Government
In 1998, nobody could have foreseen that Chavez's government would become leftist and totalitarian. In 1999, Chavez changed Venezuela's constitution to extend presidential terms. He also changed three powers (legislative, judicial and executive) into five (adding citizen and electoral); this changed nothing, because he oversees them all. Chavez always keeps his closest allies in the highest positions, and those people switch from one position to the next.
Chavez's most powerful tool in governing Venezuela is a weekly “reality show” on national television. The show is called Alo Presidente. In this show, he discusses his hopes, dreams, and political agenda. He also sings and insults people, from other presidents to the opposition—anything that strikes his fancy that day. This way of delivering messages to his people is difficult to compare with anything else in history. Hundreds of radio stations and TV channels that are openly opposed to Chavez's government were shut down.
Chavez uses the military not only to defend Venezuela but to defend his Bolivarian revolution. Anyone who gets in the way will be punished. People who opposed Chavez gathered signatures from 2003-2004 to petition a recall referendum. The recall referendum was held in 2004 but failed. National Assembly member Luis Tascón gathered the petition signatures (about 3.4 million)3 and posted them online. These signatures were used against the petitioners. Petitioners who worked for the government lost their jobs, and others were persecuted and humiliated.
Chavez has nationalized private companies such as PDVSA (a national oil company) and CANTV (Venezuela's electricity and internet provider). PDVSA was run into the ground. Prepared professionals who weren't with Chavez were fired, and new Chavistas, who had no experience in the oil industry, were put in their positions. This also happened with CANTV. Mismanagement caused constant power outages throughout the country. Chavez also tried to gain control over food inside the country, resulting in food shortages. Basic products—such as oil, sugar and milk—became rare, prized possessions in the home.
The crime rate has soared exponentially. Venezuela has always had crime, but not at this level. There are hundreds of murders per weekend, as well as countless victims of robberies and kidnappings. The crime statistics exceed those of countries at war. In 2010, there were more than 16,000 murders4.
Chavez calls Fidel Castro, the late Gadaffi, Ahmadinejad, and other notorious dictators his friends. The USA is his enemy, and the CIA is out to get him, or so he says.
The 2002 Coup d'état
In 2001, Chavez had passed many controversial laws. He passed the law that allowed him to take control of PDVSA, Venezuela's private oil company. On December 10, the opposition organized a general strike. Most businesses closed, including schools and the stock exchange. Part of the military was showing discontent over Chavez's government and ordered him to step down. I was sixteen at the time, and like everyone, I lived under that constant feeling of uncertainty. I breathed the air of anxiety. Chavez fired the CEO and all of the board leaders of PDVSA because they opposed government control. Chavez also closed off the company from foreign investment. Most of PDVSA's workers resigned in protest of this move, or they were fired.
On April 11, 2002, over 200,000 people5 marched to PDVSA to protest the firings, including my family and me. That morning, I had packed a towel and some vinegar, in case they fired tear-gas canisters, as they usually did. We arrived at the site of the protest, and what I saw was breathtaking: miles and miles of people who opposed the president. It looked like an ocean of people. I could not determine where it ended. I remember feeling that I was part of a historic moment in my country.
We were there for a few hours when the leaders of the march announced that we should head over to the president's office, Miraflores, so that he could see the amount of people who wanted him out of office. My mom, my dad, my brother, and I followed the rest of the people. My dad started to feel tired and dehydrated, so we decided to return home. I was a little mad, because I wanted to continue supporting the march, but my parents didnŐt allow me to stay by myself. I tried getting in touch with my older half-brother who was at the march also, but cell-phone communication was hard that day. I gave up and went home with my family.
At home, we stayed in the living room and watched the opposition news. The mass of marchers reached Miraflores, but Miraflores was already surrounded by Chavez's supporters (Chavistas).
On national television, Chavez spoke about the success of his government. All national TV stations are required by law to show Chavez when he wants to speak, and it seems like he wants to speak all the time. We couldn't see, on TV, what was happening with the march. Most of the people I knew were there. We were nervous when we saw angry opposition people confronting angry government people. All of a sudden, Venevisión, an opposition channel, televised a split screen. Half of the screen showed Chavez speaking, while the other half showed the confrontation between the two groups.
Suddenly, people on a bridge fired shots at people beneath a bridge. Nineteen people were killed 6, and around sixty were injured 7.
The military and opposition leaders went on the air to blame Chavez for all the violence. They urged the armed forces to intervene. The opposition TV stations played the violent scenes over and over.
I went to bed around one in the morning, but I couldn't sleep. I was so anxious. In the morning, I rushed up the stairs, yelling, “What happened? Did anything happen?”
My mom told me, “Yes, Dear, Chavez resigned.”
I jumped for joy. I hugged my mom, my dad, and my brother. It was a bittersweet moment. On one hand, Chavez had resigned, and that made me very happy, but on the other hand, people had died to make that happen.
The president of a commerce association, Fedecámaras, took over the presidency until elections could be held. Less than forty-eight hours later, Chavez was back in power. Everything went back to the way it had been, like nothing had happened. Chavez was everywhere.
My Nephews and Niece
I have three nephews and one niece. My oldest nephew, Robert, was born in 1995, just three years before Chavez was elected. Robert is sixteen, Kevin is fifteen, Astrid Cecile is eleven, and Charlie is ten years old. Chavez is the only president they have known in their lifetimes.
I remember when Kevin and Robert were five and six and sang anti-Chavez cries. They sang, “No más Chavez” (no more Chavez), over and over because they heard it on TV and at school. The political situation in Venezuela has permeated their lives. Most children around the world aren't aware of politics until they're older. In Venezuela, this is not the case. I see my nephews and nieces every Sunday, when I'm at home. We have lunch as a family. We always talk about Chavez, always. My dad tells the kids to study hard so that they can get scholarships in other countries and stay as far away from Venezuela—and Chavez—as possible. With hundreds of homicides each weekend, who can blame him?
My dad and mom explain to them what Venezuela used to be like when they were younger: everybody had good jobs, crime rates were down, people traveled where they liked, and you could find any product in the supermarket. But when the adults talk about Venezuela today, they warn the children to be careful: they might get robbed, murdered, or kidnapped.
School days have been canceled for recurrent national strikes. My nieces and nephews have grown up in a divided country. They have come to believe that Chavez supporters are evil and opposition supporters are good. Sometimes families are divided against each other. Fortunately, this isn't the case with our family. We're all Opposition. But everyone talks bad about Venezuelan politics and the state of the country: parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and educators. The kids absorb this negativity.
My nephews and niece also directly witnessed how a Chavez government rule affected their future. My half-sister (their mother) and her siblings worked very hard to buy property as a business venture. The three of them bought a very small building together. My half-brother was remodeling the top apartment so he could live there. He was staying at my place while he worked. Then Chavez created a new law affecting people who owned currently uninhabited or multiple properties. The law allowed other people to legally invade these properties and live there. So strangers invaded my family's building and left my half-siblings without their property.
My nephews and niece spent months hearing the adults talk about the case. My family members couldn't get the building back and couldn't get any money either. They could do nothing about it.
The Immigrant's Dilemma, Part I
I left Venezuela in January 2003, when I was seventeen, to attend college in Tampa, Florida. A month before I left, the opposition had organized a general strike. Businesses and PDVSA (the oil company) closed down for two months to protest against Chavez's government. Their objective was to pressure Chavez to change his harmful socialist economic policies or to resign. Since the protest was still in progress when I left, I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to fly out of Venezuela. Luckily, I didn't have any problems. Arriving in Tampa, I felt what any teen who leaves home for the first time feels: nervous and lost.
I checked Venezuela's news online. I was happy to be in the U.S., but I worried about the future of my country. What if a war broke out, with my friends and family caught in the middle of it? I attended class and tried to concentrate on homework. I tried to make new friends. I was sick of the entire situation in Venezuela and tired of all the complaining. In college in the U.S., I could meet people from other cultures, and that excited me very much. I felt homesick eventually, of course. That's natural. I guess my way of coping with homesickness was to feel proud of my country. I started listening to Venezuelan music. I watched Venezuelan movies and TV shows. I read authors from Venezuela. I had never felt especially proud of my country while I was living there. Everything about Venezuela had felt so negative. The country was falling apart!
But in college, I turned every project into a project about Venezuela. I showed my new friends the positive things about Venezuela: the beaches, the delicious food, friendly people, cultural diversity, deserts, rainforests, mountains, wildlife, and 70-degree weather all year round. During my years in college, I spent my summers in Venezuela. Every time I went back, I had a wonderful time. It was as if I were wearing rose-tinted glasses. I only saw Venezuela for its positive sides. I enjoyed the time with my family and friends more than ever. Of course, they were still living with the negative sides, and I wasn't.
I spent the summer of 2011 in Venezuela as well. I arrived feeling blissful that I was back. I made plans with family and friends. I thought of all the wonderful things I would do during my visit. Every Venezuelan that I encountered, known or unknown, tried to break my positive bubble. I went to the supermarket, and the old lady behind me said our country was “falling apart.” I went to a family gathering, and they told me how lucky I was because I didn't have to live in “this horrible country.” I went to parties, and all my friends told me that they were figuring out ways to leave. I understood their unhappiness, but their negativity still made me very sad. I thought about my nephews and niece and how they'd been growing up with this attitude their whole lives. I remembered a happier childhood. I decided to remember a better, unrealistic Venezuela.
The Persistent and Smiling Sloth
For my thesis project, I wrote, designed and illustrated a children's book. The name of the book is Teresa, the Smiling Sloth. I named the sloth Teresa, because the title, in Spanish, rhymes: Teresa, la Pereza Sonriente. In the story, Teresa is a happy and innocent sloth. A tree, which is her home, is hit by lightning bolt, and a few pieces of her tree go missing. Teresa is positive she will find the missing pieces and reattach them to fix her tree. Along the way, she meets a toucan, a jaguar, an anteater, a tapir, and a capybara, all of whom tell her she will never fix her tree. After all, she's a sloth, and sloths are slow, lazy, and sleepy. Teresa ignores the negativity and triumphantly fixes her tree!
The story works as an allegory in which Teresa, the sloth, represents the hopeful youth of Venezuela. Teresa's home, the tree, represents Venezuela. The lightning bolt that hits the tree represents Chavez, and the animals that Teresa encounters are the cynics.
My hope is that this book will inspire Venezuelan children to never give up, to remain positive, and to believe in a better future for their country.
The Immigrant's Dilemma, Part II
I have been living in and out of the U.S. for the past nine years, and I always find myself going through the immigrant's dilemma.
It's a head-versus-heart matter. My head tells me that I need to stay outside of my country in order to have a better career, more opportunities, and a safe place to live and work. My heart tells me I belong in my country with my people, my food, my climate, my landscape. My heart tells me I should be fighting to make my country a better place.
If all the educated and motivated people left Venezuela, who would be left to improve the country? My generation—and my nephew's and niece's, too—is responsible for the future of our country. This dilemma is ever so present in my life. I'm not really sure what I will be—or should be—doing.
In October 2012, Venezuela will have presidential elections. There's always hope in my mind that Chavez will stop governing our country—and Venezuela, finally, will be able to change for the better.
1 Gott, Richard, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, (London: Verso, 2005) 69.
2 Trinkunas, Harold and McCoy, Jennifer, Observation of the 1998 Venezuelan Elections, (CNE, “Resultados Electorales Venezuela 1998”) 49.
3 Murphy, Helen, Chavez's Blacklist of Venezuelan Opposition Intimidates Voters, (Bloomberg News Website 2006). Article Link
4 Romero, Simon, Venezuela More Deadly Than Iraq, Wonders Why, (The New York Times Website 2010). Article Link
5 Isikoff, Michael, Hugo's Close Call, (The Daily Beast Website 2002).
6 Jones, Bart, Hugo!, (2008) 38.
7 Wilpert, Gregory, NACLA, The Venezuelan Coup Revisited: Silencing the Evidence, (NACLA Report 42) 4.