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Column: The Venezuela I saw — no ‘crisis,’ just people dedicated to building a different world

  • Chavista activist holds a poster with the phrase “Respect Venezuela” along with images of current President Nicolás Maduro, former President Hugo Chávez and Simón Bolívar. (Christopher Helali photograph)

  • A market in the neighborhood of Candelaria in Caracas, Venezuela. (Christopher Helali photograph)

  • The author, Christopher J. Helali, right, with generals of the National Bolivarian Militia of Venezuela, including Gen. A. Monroy M., left, at an anti-imperialist rally in Caracas, Venezuela. (María Fernanda Barreto photograph)

  • Chavista activist holds a poster saying “Out Trump from Venezuela” at an anti-imperialist rally in Caracas, Venezuela. (Christopher Helali photograph)



For the Valley News
Saturday, April 13, 2019

Caracas

The Air France flight had been nearly empty. Nervously, I watched the immigration officer walking to his superior officer with my passport in hand. After weeks of planning, delays and, most recently, a power outage, it was truly a relief to have landed safely. Within a few minutes, the officer returned, stamped my passport, smiled and welcomed me to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

So began my nine-day solo trip last month to Venezuela — an experience that was both extraordinary as well as perpetually surreal. While experiencing the reality on the ground, I was bombarded by half-truths and downright untruths from the mass media. Somehow I had entered an episode of the Twilight Zone.

After leaving the airport, I secured a taxi and we began a nearly hour-long journey from the airport to the center of the Caracas. We snaked our way in and around the hills that surround the capital, passing the many brick houses that make up the shantytowns in the hills overlooking the city, far away from the more wealthy urban center and suburbs.

Posters, banners and graffiti praise former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, current President Nicolás Maduro, along with Simón Bolívar, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh and the socialist revolution that is transforming Venezuelan society. There were giant M’s for Maduro painted in the colors of the Venezuelan flag, as well as the recurring slogan, “Juntos Todo es Posible,” or “Together Everything is Possible.”

My first day completely debunked the stories about the so-called “humanitarian crisis” in Venezuela. No, the people were not eating trash, rats, jaguars or resorting to cannibalism. In fact, when I recounted those stories to my comrade Carlos, he laughed and said this was the colonial and racist discourse perpetually facing the people of Latin America.

After settling into my hotel, I walked around the neighborhood of Candelaria. There was food everywhere. Cafés and bakeries offered drinks, croissants, cakes, cookies and sandwiches. Street vendors sold everything from fruits and vegetables to meats and cheeses. Local markets had a wide variety of produce, processed meats, cheeses and beverages. Local dishes, such as arepas and cachapas, which I was able to enjoy daily, were absolutely delicious.

No one was eating rats here.

On March 16, the day after my arrival, as thousands around the world marched under the banner “Hands off Venezuela,” I took part in a massive demonstration in Caracas against U.S. intervention. I met up with María Fernanda Barreto, a journalist who was born in Colombia but had moved to Venezuela before Chávez came to power. “Things were much worse before Chávez,” she recounted. “For the poor, there was nothing.”

Ana Cristina Bracho, a human rights lawyer, agreed. Educated in France, she defended the socialist revolution in Venezuela. “How could it be that a just society has wealth concentrated in so few hands?” she asked. “This is incompatible with justice.” Before Chávez, she said, children were brutally exploited, from working in factories to carrying bags for the rich. “After the revolution,” she said, “Chávez gave these kids the chance to have an education, which all children deserve.”

Her privilege and French education could easily provide a materially comfortable life in Europe. Yet she spoke with great passion for a revolution that was now being targeted by the United States and its allies, and she remains with her people. “This is our revolution,” she said, “a revolution for the dignity of all the people, not just the elite few. The U.S. and Europeans hate Venezuela because we are trying to build a different world. They don’t want us to exist as an example of possible alternatives to their system.”

Festivities were well underway when we arrived at the demonstration. Thousands had gathered to defend their revolution, and the atmosphere was electric. Food stands, drinks and candy were for sale all along the street. We bought a bag of delicious mandarins for 1,000 Bolivares, or approximately 30 cents.

Toward the end of the demonstration, we went to a café next to the Plaza Bolívar for a bite to eat, relaxing after hours of walking. Inside, Barreto introduced me to two generals of the National Bolivarian Militia of Venezuela. They greeted me affectionately, hugging me and welcoming me to their country. I was shocked. Never would I ever be greeted this way by a U.S. general. They invited me to eat with them, so we sat down and purchased a traditional dessert.

As we ate together, I noticed that the generals had no weapons, no guards and no other forms of protection. I asked them about this. Two-sun (two-star) Gen. A. Monroy M. smiled at me. “The people are our protection,” he said. Meanwhile, people both in and out of uniform would approach and salute or greet the generals.

We soon rejoined the demonstration. Some people would come up to the generals and ask for cigarettes, which they happily shared, while others gave them folded pieces of paper scribbled with personal details about those who needed immediate assistance. The generals listened and reassured them that, in the coming days, they would delegate the aid they needed.

Over the next few days, I was able to visit neighborhoods from the poorest barrios, such as Catia, to the elite neighborhood of Chacao. Strikingly, it was the poorest neighborhoods that had set up communes in defense of the revolution, with their own militias to protect against a possible coup to oust the legitimately elected government of Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, from power.

Barreto took me to Cagigal Observatory, which overlooks the capital and is now the headquarters for the Bolivarian militia. We took the metro, which was free, efficient, clean and timely. Upon reaching the observatory, we were greeted by officers. One of them, while shaking my hand, exclaimed, “We are family!”

Many people were gathered at the militia headquarters for food distribution. The government provides individuals and families with subsidized food that addresses essential dietary and nutritional needs. Known as “CLAP boxes,” for the Local Committees for Supply and Production, they include such staples as beans, rice, spaghetti, oil, eggs, chicken, beef, corn flower, salt, sugar, lentils and powdered milk.

While the rich continue to lament the deteriorating conditions in the country, emphasizing they are hungry and losing weight, the reality on the ground is quite different. For example, after the electricity went out, the wealthy took to social media to express anger at how much of the food they had in their freezers had spoiled.

The Venezuela I saw was not the socialist, totalitarian regime described by the media. It was a country filled with fast food outlets — McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway — and even a Hard Rock Cafe. Its malls were teeming with people, many carrying bags in and out of shops and eating at the restaurants. The richest neighborhoods have private villas surrounded by walls, barbed wire and private security along with yoga studios, clubs and gyms.

Onlookers of the Venezuelan crisis are dumbfounded that Maduro hasn’t fallen from power. The coup has not and will not succeed because the people remember Operation Condor of the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. dirty wars, and the previous neoliberal regimes that plundered Latin America. The horrific crimes the U.S. and its paramilitaries committed, including genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass murder and torture, continue to haunt Latin America.

Venezuela has taught me about the resilience and dedication of a people fighting for their dignity, independence and sovereignty against the United States, which, citing the Monroe Doctrine, considers all of the Western Hemisphere its exclusive zone to do as it pleases.

This was confirmed on my taxi ride to the airport for the flight home. At the international terminal, I immediately noticed a massive Antonov AN-124 cargo plane with the Russian flag on its tail. Parked next to it was a smaller Ilyushin IL-62 passenger jet surrounded by soldiers, vehicles and equipment.

Reflecting on my experience, I believe the famous dictum, “countries want independence, nations want liberation, and the people want revolution” perfectly encapsulates all of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the Venezuelan people. The destiny of humanity is to realize our collective liberation. It is my hope that peace will prevail.

Christopher Helali, of Vershire, is a graduate student in cultural studies at Dartmouth College. He was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector from the Army in 2015 with the rank of first lieutenant. As a freelance journalist, his work has appeared in the South China Morning Post, Tehran Times and Asia Pacific Daily, as well as other smaller publications.