Last Sunday my wife and I attended a Mass in an east-end Montreal church with a large Latino congregation. The service was a special one in that the theme was the current unrest in Venezuela.
The church was crowded, standing room only. There could be no doubt that the vast majority of those in attendance were of Venezuelan origin; flags, national ball caps, traditional dresses, and vinotinto soccer shirts were everywhere.
I have been to several services in Latino churches and never cease to be impressed by the vibrancy of the worshippers. Having been brought up in an Irish Catholic household it is always a wonderful surprise to hear upbeat music being played loudly and including drums …. drums in a church! Being used to the more sombre pipe organ, the Latino Mass, not to be confused with a Latin Mass, is a breath of fresh air.
Yet last Sunday’s Mass had its fair share of sombre moments. At one point the celebrating priest called all Venezuelans to come up and stand on the altar. My wife opted to remain in our pew and video the gathering. There must have been two hundred people of all ages standing there, some holding signs bearing the names of those recently killed in the Caracas protests. Then the band started playing and a woman with a lovely strong voice began to sing a much-loved song called Venezuela. This song was written not by a Venezuelan, but by Spaniards Pablo Herrero Ibarz and José Luis Armenteros Sánchez who had fallen in love with the South American country.
The tears started to flow as the song went on and those Venezuelans standing on an altar in Montreal thought about the violent turmoil in their country and feared for loved ones back home. The usually spirited members of the congregation made their way back to their pews obviously deeply moved by the experience.
Following the Mass many gathered in a park across the street from the church for a photo op. Using a drone the word NO+ (no mas – no more) was spelled out by those who braved the unseasonably cool and wet weather. No more murder, no more dictatorship. They want to once again feel they have control of their country.
Sadly there was no media coverage of the event.
This is Holy Week, the last week of Lent, which actually ends today, leading up to Easter. When I was in grade school we used to get a vacation from Thursday to Tuesday. These days, with spring breaks included in most school calendars, the days off for Easter are limited to Good Friday and, in schools but not most businesses, Easter Monday.
In Venezuela this week has traditionally been a time to kick back and relax. Millions of Venezuelans make their way to beaches for sun and surf. This year a new twist has been put on where and how Holy Week sunning should be done.
Since the first of April hundreds of thousands of opposition protesters have taken to the streets daily in an effort to force new election. On the April first the government of Nicolas Maduro stripped the Venezuelan congress of its powers, making the country a de facto dictatorship. The move has since been overturned, but the protests continue. Opposition leaders are urging people to forego the beach this year and take the sun while marching in the streets of Caracas. Will this latest round of demonstrations have the desired effect?
The Venezuelan opposition has been calling for peaceful protests this week, as it has on numerous occasions before. Thus far the result has been failure. Maduro has no interest in a new election, transparent democracy not being high on his list of essentials. I can only assume he is hoping the situation in the US continues to hold the world’s attention.
If the protests do not succeed in bringing about a new election, then perhaps they will serve to show the world what is happening in the oil-rich country. But I fear that with the regular flow of idiocy out of Washington – from Trump’s knee-jerk reaction to bomb Syrian airfields (some say he would have done the runways more damage had he bought the airfield and tried to run it as a business) to Sean Spicer’s foot/ankle/shin in mouth statement about Hitler not using chemicals – the world is otherwise occupied.
There is a popular cliché that fits this situation: the Trump administration is sucking the air out of world news. International ne’er-do-wells must be having a field-day while world attention focuses on Trump-Russia and Syria.
There is an old adage used to indicate a superfluous activity, it likens the act to carrying coals to Newcastle. Newcastle is a coal-rich area in England, so why would anyone bring more.
A recent piece in the New York Times illustrates a variation on the coals to Newcastle concept. Not coal in this case, but oil. Not Newcastle but Venezuela. The oil-rich South American country is now, paradoxically, buying oil from the United States. Not that Venezuela has exhausted its oil reserves, but the process of drilling for and refining the crude has come to a screeching halt for reasons that run the gamut from mismanagement to vandalism to corruption. Should the country’s oil production continue to be stalled, the world will feel the pinch at the gas pumps.
In the article Helima Croft, the chief commodity strategist for the Royal Bank of Canada states “A collapse in Venezuela would be an accelerator for oil prices; it would be a total shock. This country is literally imploding.” She added that currently “There is no oil producer that is falling apart as fast as or as dramatically as Venezuela.”
I have in-laws living in Venezuela who provide me first-hand accounts of the chaos, the implosion, that has befallen their beautiful country. Staples including milk, bread, and over-the-counter medications are either not available or are in such short supply that long lines form outside stores in Caracas. Thousands of Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia when possible to stock-up on basics such as toilet paper and flour.
Opposition-led protests draw hundreds of thousands to the streets, but fall on the deaf ears of the government. Faith in the electoral system has been eroded by numerous dodgy votes. Shady voter registration and old fashioned ballot-box shenanigans have instilled a sense of severe distrust in the democratic process.
For many living there the anger and frustration are creating a feeling of living on a powder-keg that will, unless radical change is implemented soon, explode. Here’s hoping a peaceful solution can be arrived at, but I fear the time may have passed for that.
Last Sunday was a tense day around my place. My significantly better half, of Venezuelan origin, was glued to several social media apps – Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp in particular – in an attempt to get up to the minute information on the parliamentary elections in Venezuela.
Advanced polling had given the opposition a substantial lead over the government of Nicholas Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late Hugo Chavez. A victory would signal a change in the country, a majority would lead to improvements, and a super-majority of 112, or two-thirds,would mean a sea change in the country.
As an interested observer I had seen this all before; hopes raised only to be dashed by voting irregularities that the ruling government employs. Tears shed abroad by families split trying to flee years of corruption and violence in Venezuela. I held my breath not only for the results, but for the reaction to same.
Late in the day it was announced that the polls would be open for an additional hour. I thought this was a good thing; the more voters casting ballots the more chance for a legitimate election. But it was soon explained to me that this is one of the tactics used by the government if they sense they are in a bad position (or know their actual support, as voting is done by machine, and no one believes a running tally is not available to Maduro). The next word was that buses were arriving at polling stations. This is also a bad sign as often these are full of government supporters who have already voted and will now cast dubious ballots – often those of dead people.
Then with the voting over, the tension built and social media went crazy. The official announcement was not made for some five hours – was Maduro going to stage a Coup as had been rumoured? Then finally official word of a 99-seat majority with several more too close to call. It now seems that the coveted super-majority has been achieved. Interesting times are in store for Venezuela.
Tears of joy were the order of the day not only in Venezuela, but in Montreal, Costa Rica and Spain where family members have relocated.
I was pleased to see the following statement from the Canadian Government.
December 7, 2015 – Ottawa, Ontario – Global Affairs Canada
The Honourable Stéphane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs, today issued the following statement on the parliamentary elections that took place in Venezuela on December 6, 2015:
“Canada congratulates Venezuelans for exercising their democratic right to vote in a peaceful environment. We encourage all parties to engage in productive and meaningful dialogue to ensure that all branches of government work together in the best interests of the country’s citizens. We look forward to continuing to work with the Government of Venezuela to consolidate and strengthen our diplomatic relationship.
“With full respect for Venezuela’s sovereignty, Canada looks forward to working with the Government of Venezuela to uphold the principles of respect for human rights and democratic governance enshrined in the charters of the UN and Organization of American States, as well as in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
“In every society, a government’s first responsibility is to ensure the well-being of its citizens. Canada believes that with mutual respect and compromise among Venezuela’s political leaders, peace can be maintained, allowing the country’s social and economic challenges to be properly addressed.”
This past weekend we rented the film Selma. The movie documents the events around the famous 1965 march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state’s capital, in protest of voter registration finagling. Racist hurdles were systematically put in place to make it essentially impossible for African Americans – then called Negroes- to complete the voter registration process. The South had been ‘officially’ desegregated the year before, but when it came down to the grassroots nitty-gritty, individual government employees flouted that act by imposing their own methods to determine if a person could be registered to vote. Asking questions that were impossible to answer seems to have been very popular when it came to denying registration.
Flash forward fifty years and how have things changed? We no longer use the word Negro, but African American. And while one would like to believe the voter registration process has become more transparent, allowing all eligible African Americans to vote, there can be no doubt that racism still plays a role in society. What will it take to finally eradicate this wrong? Education would be a good place to start.
Not unlike the deep-rooted culture of racism in parts of America, a similar situation exists in many Latin American countries regarding corruption. In Venezuela, a country I am familiar with as it is the birthplace of my significantly better half, common day-to-day existence often involves corruption. A police officer pulls you over; it’s a shakedown, you can pay him off and go on your way, or you can take the high road and challenge the accusation and end up having your car impounded and wasting hours or even days trying to get it back. Most people just succumb to the system in order to function.
It will take perhaps several generations to effect the sea change in attitude toward corruption that is required. That is, once a decision has been made to make such a change. But corrupt governments have little interest in this.
Both racism and corruption have roots that are deeply embedded.
Journalist Matthew Fisher is currently filing reports for Canada’s The National Post from Caracas, Venezuela. In an ongoing series focused on the multitude of problems facing Venezuelans, the sub-head of his most recent column is: Life is cheap in Caracas, dubbed “the kidnap capital of the world”.
The concept of kidnapping for financial gain is certainly not new, but the practice of what locals call Express Kidnapping has been honed to a fine art in Caracas. Not that this heinous activity does not exist elsewhere – many Latin American countries battle this crime, or don’t battle it as the case may be – but Caracas leads the way when it comes to kidnappings.
According to Fisher’s article, “Jorge Gonzalez’s specialty is kidnapping. The gang he leads gives a victim’s family and friends only 72 hours to come up with the ransom. If they do not or cannot pay, the captive is murdered.”
The first time I heard of this was when my significantly better half, a proud Caraqueña born and raised, explained to me how she had been kidnapped from the front door of her building in Caracas. Just days before Christmas she had gone downstairs to see a friend who was going to drop off a CD. This friend had been followed by thugs who took advantage of the opportunity. Two got out of a car and forced them at gunpoint into her friend’s car and drove off, with an accomplice following in the other car.
They were taken to an out-of-the-way area. Was she going to be robbed, raped, killed? All of the above? They were held at gunpoint by the thug in the passenger seat, while in the back seat the hostages feared the worst. Her friend finally saw an opportunity and lunged at the gun. It went off injuring his hand, but more importantly scaring the kidnappers.
Fortunately, after an agonizing and traumatic hour or so, this incident ended well, but not before a scuffle with gunshots being fired, and the two captives abandoned while the disappointed and frightened kidnappers fled.
I asked her if she went to the police. She looked at me as if I had sprouted a second head. In Fisher’s column this is explained by Gonzalez: “We have lots of contact with the police,” he said. “They tip us off if anything is going wrong. We pay for that and give them a cut to stay quiet.”
So with no police to rely on for protection, is it any wonder the crime rate soars? There are some 50 carjackings in Caracas everyday – not all of Venezuela, that’s just Caracas.
This was the last straw for her; she decided it was sadly time to leave her home and family as next time things may not end so well. And she knew there would be a next time. Is her family wealthy? No. Politically influential? No. Just an average middle-class family. But as Fisher’s piece points out, life is cheap. If this one does not bring in some cash, the next one will.
Life in many Latin American countries requires some special precautions to be taken. For example one day we were waiting in line in my bank here in Montreal. My phone rang, I answered it, spoke and hung up. She looked at me agog. When I asked why she pointed out that cell phone use is banned in Venezuelan banks as it was used primarily for one crook to inform another outside the bank of any patrons leaving with large cash withdrawals; easy pickings.
I have lost count of how many times she has expressed relief to be able to wear simple jewelery outside in Canada – watches, earrings, bracelets – that would have to be left in a safe in Caracas lest they be snatched by passing thieves. Traffic in Caracas is horrendous, but many of those guys on motorcycles zipping along between rows of cars are doing more than just getting home quicker. Armed robbery of motorists is a very common occurrence.
The more journalists like Fisher bring to light the problems long suffered by Venezuelans, perhaps the sooner something can be done. But I fear a culture of corruption and collusion will not disappear overnight.
Once again the world’s media is turning its attention to the situation in Venezuela. The turmoil has been there all along, but now the world is taking notice after a bit of a hiatus. The recent arrest, or abduction depending on your political position, of Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma has caught the eye of major news agencies around the globe. Sensational video of the actual removal of the mayor from his office, featuring heavily armed police and military shooting guns, has been broadcast repeatedly on the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and other international sites.
This event in Venezuela is just the latest in an ongoing period of social unrest that pits citizens against the government and vice versa. Last year protesters took to the streets and parks of cities across the nation to denounce the government of Nicolas Maduro that, through mismanagement and corruption, has made a bad situation worse. Maduro has continued the corrupt policies of his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez, but doesn’t have the charisma that Chavez plied.
Mayor Ledezma is a member of the opposition and has long been an outspoken critic of Maduro. The president claims Ledezma was involved in plotting a coup d’etat to overthrow the government, all with the aid and support of the USA. My casual discussions with expatriate Venezuelans usually produce the same result: no one wants to see the destabilizing and dangerous conditions brought on by outside intervention, but they fear it is the only hope for their country.
In good blogger disclosure, I admit that I actually owe a debt of gratitude to the late Chavez; my significantly better half fled her home, as have hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, in an effort to live a normal life – unfortunately she met me and all traces of normal were erased, but that’s another story. She was seeking the little things in life like not having strict restrictions placed on your currency and ridiculously high inflation, and well-stocked grocery shelves, police who give you a ticket for blowing a stop sign instead of demanding a bribe. Other members of her family have escaped to Costa Rica and Spain, while several have remained.
For consumers of news, boredom sets in easily; no action and they yearn for something else. Last year the protests initially drew much attention as gas and bullets flew, but as days turned into weeks and months, and sexier world events occurred, the plight of Venezuela was pushed to the rear. But Maduro has solved that – muchas gracias Señor – by creating a scene that has fueled a revitalization of media interest worldwide.
One often hears of places or people being described by the expression “a terrible beauty”, well that certainly fits Venezuela. With tropical conditions, a vast influx of cash from tourism should be a given. Sadly the flow of foreign money-toting visitors is stemmed by a conception of lawlessness and danger. The country’s vast oil reserves alone could provide for all, yet many live in poverty due to corruption and mismanagement.
Chavez and Maduro have relied on electoral support from the poor by promising them better living conditions to come, but never delivering. All the while amassing huge fortunes for themselves. According to Jerry Brewer, president of Criminal Justice International Associates, Hugo Chavez’ was worth some US$2B at the time of his death. Much of that believed to have been taken from Venezuelans.
I don’t have the answer to Venezuela’s problems, I wish I did, but I know that having the conditions there exposed to the world can only help.
In an odd about-face Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has ordered retail outlets to reduce the price of Barbie Dolls. That most iconic of American toys, Barbie was once vilified by Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez who stated “the stupidity of Barbie”. One is left to wonder if Chavez actually tried to converse with the doll and, getting no response deemed her stupid.
But this year, as part of Maduro’s “Operation Merry Christmas” he has decreed that toy prices be slashed to allow all Venezuelans to purchase them. No Grinch or Bah Humbug about it.
Poor Barbie has often been criticized in North America for being so damned perfect. Young girls see this cellulite-free figure and strive to emulate her. Unfortunately opinion seems to be that the proportions of the Barbie shape would not translate to a real woman. At least not an average real woman, maybe something Picasso created, but not your everyday girl.
As women in plastic-surgery loving Venezuela, land of umpteen beauty pageant queens, spend a fortune to try to look like Barbie, paradoxically their counterparts in the US, home of the “perfect body” doll, are being urged to love what they have.
The currently very popular song by Meghan Trainor, All About That Bass, (which I had assumed was a tribute to a fish … go figure) encourages young women to be satisfied with their shape just as it is.
I see the magazine workin’ that Photoshop
We know that shit ain’t real
C’mon now, make it stop
If you got beauty, beauty, just raise ’em up
‘Cause every inch of you is perfect
From the bottom to the top
It must be a relief for Venezuelans to know that in a country where basic staples such as milk and bread are becoming increasingly difficult to find on store shelves, they can be assured of cut-rate Barbie Dolls.