Monday, March 28, 2005

"Late Night Choke Hold Muggings"

When my girlfriend and I were traveling in Peru a few years ago, I read a section of the guide book which warned of "Late Night Choke Hold Muggings" in a certain section of Cuzco. It was hard not to laugh at such a phrase, yet there was no doubt a reason why it was in the guide book.

I'm reminded of that warning as I listen to horror stories from tourists in Caracas. In the three weeks I have been in Venezuela I have heard from over a dozen travelers who have been robbed, which is a much higher number than anywhere else I have ever traveled.

One Argentine couple was robbed at gun point on their way back from the airport in an "official" taxi. The robbers pulled out automatic weapons and took the Argentines' bags, money and credit cards, so when they arrived at our hostel they were penniless and shaking.

A Swiss person walking down the street last night had his shoes robbed from him and three Swedish women had their beer robbed from them when walking back to the hostel. One Dutch man was ushered into a van by police who demanded a bribe. The Dutchman had over a thousand dollars which had just been wired to him from home. The police asked where he was staying, then let him go. As he was walking up the steps to his hotel, he was hit with a stun gun and went unconscious. When he woke up all of his money was gone. The security guard at the hotel said the police had arrived beforehand and told the guard not to do anything when the Dutchman was robbed...

Two other Swedish tourists were approached by police twice in two days and forced to give a bribe in order to not be hauled off to jail. Others had stories of being robbed by gunpoint on the beach, attacked with machetes or being forced to take money out of an ATM. Others had been drugged, waking up two days later in the hospital without a cent.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Merida, Venezuela

Recently, I was able to speak with the coordinator of the House Wives Union here in Merida, Venezuela. The union is working to provide government pensions to their members, among other things. It also provides free legal help to its members, tells them about the variety of government sponsored programs that they are entitled to and helps them form cooperatives and small businesses in their community.

I've also been visiting a lot of community radios which generally receive 20 percent or so of their financial support from the government. I've visited three and each one has a very cultural focus and includes programs by men and women of all ages on local history, health and nutrition issues, local sports, music, politics and so on. The three I have visited are very democratically organized and open to anyone who wants to start a program. I have heard that in community radios in rural areas people walk for hours to the radio station in order to manage their own weekly program.

Today I traveled to a small town in the mountains called Victoria, which has a tropical climate and is good for growing coffee. A lot of the farming land and houses in the region were destroyed in flash floods last month and many farmers were left without homes or work. The government has provided hundreds of people with a temporary place to live and has begun building new houses for the victims. The event I witnessed today included state politicians distributing small loans to the coffee farmers in order to help them get back on their feet.

I've been focusing on these three topics (and others) for more in depth articles.

To read another piece I wrote on the inauguration of socialist Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay see this link:

On another note, Merida is also home to the ice cream parlor with the most flavors in the world. I checked this place out and the owner, (who created all of the 816 flavors himself) handed me various samples including hot dog, Viagra, corn, rose petals, avocado and trout. After the trout he handed me another flavor, "It is always good to finish off a trout meal with a good Beck's Beer!"

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Fellow Travellers

Throughout this trip I´ve met a lot of travelers from all over the globe. Most recently, I stayed at at Nuestro Hostel in Caracas, Venezuela which served as a temporary home for Germans, Australians, Bulgarians, North Americans, Poles, Venezuelans and more. A few of them had some incredible travel stories.

Sean from the US had been traveling in South America for years. He had just drove a car all the way from California, through Mexico and Central America and to Caracas, Venezuela. He told stories of living in a hostel in Buenos Aires that charged 24 cents a night. When he was low on cash, he bough a ticket to La Paz, Bolivia where he worked as a taxi driver for a few days to make enough money to get to Lima, Peru where his flight was leaving for the US.

On another trip to Bolivia he was kidnapped in La Paz. People with guns forced him into a car, blindfolded him and brought him to El Alto, a poor area outside the city. He was kept in a room for four days without food. They only gave him one glass of water. After searching his credit cards and bank account they realized that he was a lot poorer than they expected. He only had about 500 dollars in his bank account. Angry, they let him go. Using the money he left in his backpack in storage in the bus station, he bought a ticket to Northern Argentina. Along the way, the bus got completely stuck in muddy roads and the trip took days longer than expected.

Larry, another traveler from the states quit his job, left his girl friend and sold his house and all of his belongings to travel in South America. When I met him he was at the tail end of his trip and was about to take a bus to Bogota, Colombia. Larry still wasn´t sure what he was going to do when he went home. All he had waiting for him back in the states was fifty dollars and a change of clothes.

There was also a girl from Ireland who had been traveling for 8 months and still had another 4 to go. She had been in Caracas for a few days getting dental work done and then she was off to Colombia.

A women from Bulgaria was also traveling throughout the continent. Thanks to a rich boyfriend in the US who funded her trip, she had plenty of money to spend. In Cuba she had spent $6,000 USD in one month!

There was a Polish guy named Bart who was visiting his Venezuelan father, a New York labor organizer traveling around the continent and an Australian who had purchased this plane ticket combo that allowed him to hop around something like five continents in 22 flights over the course of a year...

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Visit to Barrio La Vega in Caracas

It's been an interesting week here. The large majority of the people I've spoken with are pro-Chavez and support the political process which is taking place here. As I mentioned in my previous blog, crime here is a big deal and is at least spoken about non-stop. Foreigners especially are warned countless times to be careful. Yet the demonization of the poor neighborhoods surrounding the city has a lot to do with the media here, which is largely in the hands of the right-wing.

Instead of covering the cultural aspects of these poor neighborhoods, or barrios, the TV constantly reports on how many deaths, shootings, robberies etc. have occurred there each week. In response to this many independent, community-run news agencies have been countering this misinformation.

I visited a place yesterday in La Vega barrio where a group called calle y media are teaching kids in the area how to use cameras and video, radio and small printing presses to make their own news about what is happening in their neighborhood. The people involved with it, (I spoke with two teenagers) liked to focus the coverage on cultural issues and sports and what the young people are doing in the area. "The mainstream news just reports on how many people have been shot in the barrios each week. We're trying to tell another side of the story," one of the teenagers said.

In this neighborhood there was a building for Barrio Adentro, a government sponsored project to bring Cuban doctors inside poor barrios to help treat the sick. According to people who lived in the area, the care was excellent, free and there were no long lines to wait for treatment. There were also govt funded supermarkets that had essential products for very cheap prices. A comedor libre, (free cafeteria) was in each sector of every barrio. In one of the comedores that I visited, the people there provided one free meal a day to about 150 people, mainly children, elderly and sick people that were not eating well on their own. This was also govt sponsored. Mission Robinson, which include literacy classes, was also going on in the barrio.

These projects are not just implemented from the top down. They are largely funded by the government but are focused on empowering people and helpíng citizens take on the responsibility to self-govern and participate as much as possible in the current political process. As one resident of La Vega explained, "We support Chavez, but more than that we support this political process. We must also remain critical of
the government. When we stop being critical, we lose everything..."

Though most citizens I've spoken with have strong political opinion, I have, however, spoken to a few apathetic Venezuelans. One taxi driver explained to me he didn't care for either the opposition or Chavez. "I've never been interested in politics." I asked him what he thought of the US's stance towards Venezuela. He said, "to be honest, I don't even know who the president of the US is."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Arrival in Caracas, Venezuela

Upon arriving in the Caracas airport, I was shocked to see the shack-covered mountains surrounding the city. There were poor houses as far as the eye could see, labyrinths of brick huts clinging to the steep mountainsides. Some were huddled together in crowded patches, others were part of a sprawling network of tin roofs, garbage strewn dirt pathways and small cement homes with laundry flapping in the windows and tangled wires pirating electricity in the air. Occasionally there was a section of a mountain that had been washed away from massive rains. Whole communities are regularly swept away in flash floods during the rainy season.

It was the people in these neighborhoods in Venezuela that voted President Hugo Chavez into office. Many blame the economic policies of previous administrations for their poverty and claim Chavez has improved their situation with government sponsored health and education programs, land re-distribution, housing assistance and employment among other initiatives.

Below this complexity of homes lies the center of Caracas, a mixture of high rises and office buildings, paved roads and crowded traffic. I didn't know it before I came here, but many people regard Caracas as one of the most dangerous cities in South America. It didn't even cross my mind before arriving. Most of my knowledge of the country involved the political and social issues surrounding the Chavez presidency. So when, shortly after arriving, everyone I met began giving me countless tips on where and where not to go, which police not to trust, how to carry my bag, what to carry, which taxis to take, hotels to stay at, what time I should be home at night - I was surprised. Every other word seemed to be "peligroso" or "dangerous."

Well I haven't been robbed or kidnapped...yet, but I have ran into plenty of very friendly people eager to talk about politics. I have so far met only one person who doesn't like Chavez. There was one other taxi driver who, after explaining how much he disliked Chavez, admitted that he voted for him in the last referendum because, "he's been doing some pretty incredible things for the country."

Most supporters cite the literacy campaigns, free health care and education, land re-distribution to poor farmers, housing assistance, the change in fishing laws which supports small fisherman, a higher employment rate and more chance for communication and participation in the government.

"My brother wanted to go to college before, but he couldn't afford it. Now the university is free and both my brothers are going," one magazine salesman explained.

A carpenter I spoke with liked that Chavez was trying to unite Latin American countries. He also said that though the US government is very critical of Chavez, most Venezuelans don't have a problem with the people of the US, just the government.

As far as the common critique that Chavez is trying to turn Venezuela into a new Cuba - I don't see that to be the case at all, (for now at least.) There is not a tight police control over the city, in fact this could contribute to the high crime rate. In Cuba there are policeman everywhere. Vendors selling all kinds of goods are spread across the Caracas and the majority do not pay any taxes to the gov't for their business. That's not communism. In Cuba, all businesses have to give much of their profit to the government.

The media in Cuba is entirely controlled by the Castro administration, one big sign that it is operating like a dictatorship. In Venezuela the large majority of the media, TV, newspapers and radio is controlled by the people in opposition to Chavez. This results in a unbalanced coverage of national/international events and a steady stream of anti-Chavez editorials and articles. This could never happen in Cuba. The opposition media here clearly has a plenty of freedom, their newspapers and TV stations are everywhere.

It's interesting that in spite of this massive media control, Chavez continues to be elected in referendums and elections. He's been elected eight times! Meanwhile president Bush has been elected once, (debatable) and selected by the Supreme Court before that. In this sense, it's ironic that the Bush administration calls Chavez undemocratic!

There are probably plenty of critiques of the Chavez administration that I am overlooking, but these are my first impressions after three days in the country.


If you'd like, check out this article I just finished...

Member of Worker-Run Factory in Argentina Was Kidnapped, Tortured

Friday, March 04, 2005

Worker Cooperatives and Micro Credit Programs

To check out a piece I just wrote on worker-run factories and businesses in Buenos Aires click here

Here's another I just finished on micro-credit programs in poor neighbhorhoods in Mendoza, Argentina

There's a few other new pieces recently published on One on free trade and another on Hunter S. Thompson....

I'm off to Venezuela on March 8, stay tuned and thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Viva Uruguay!

Imagine if Republicans had been running the US for the last 180 years, and then one day an upstanding member of the Green Party won - it would be a cause for celebration, right? Well that's what has been going on Montevideo, Uruguay for the past week. In fact, at the end of his acceptance speech, Tabare Vaqzquez's closing words were, "Festejen Uruguay, festejen..." (Party Uruguay, party...) Millions took his suggestion to heart and hit the streets. Cheers, dances, drumming, flag waving and parades went on day and night for much of the week. There has been an enormous feeling of pride in the air, and I don't think I have ever seen so many happy people - outside of music festivals and perhaps the recent World Social Forum - in one place What's more is that it was a very diverse group in the street, of all ages and economic brackets. I have yet to encounter anyone who did not vote for Vazquez.

The dictatorship in Uruguay is a dark part of the country's history. Thousands were kidnapped and tortured, many of them members of the very party Vazquez is a part of - the Frente Amlpio. In addition to reopening relations with Cuba, Vazquez extended business and political alliances with left-leaning leaders such as Kirchner from Argentina, Lula in Brazil and of course - Chavez in Venezuela. There is definitely something going on down here in S. America, and it is more than just Che Guevara T-shirts and worn out communist slogans. There is a a serious shift to the left in Latin America and it has a lot to do with recent economic problems and a resurgence of resistance against free trade deals with the US, privatization of natural resources and IMF imposed structural adjustments.

Besides Bolivia's recent rebellions against the privatizationa and exploitation of the nation's natural gas and water, left-leaning presidents are being elected across the board in Latin America. In many ways, they are more centrist than far left, (particularly Lula and Kirchner) but as many citizens will contest, they are huge improvements from previous administrations and a step in the right direction.

Hugo Chavez is at the forefront of this wave of change and in his long speeches he highlights what he think the continent needs to do: unify - socially, politically and economically. The political movement in his own country is marked by massive participation by the people of Venezuela. He's been elected democratically something like eight times (whereas it's debatable Bush has even been elected once...) the media in Venezuela is largely controlled by the opposition, the government has enacted massive changes in land distribution, fishing rights, literacy campaigns and health care reform.

Here in Uruguay many believe the party's success will depend on the participation of the people. Within the Frente Amplio, Vazquez's party, there is a political organization or program which operates in every neighborhood. At these bases the neighbors meet, talk about their opinions regarding political policies, security in the neighborhood, changes they'd like to see and articulate these ideas to the government. This method could be the key to Uruguay's success.

As Uruguay Noques, an old Frente Amplio activist explained at a recent neighborhood meeting, "To those of you who just arrived for the first time, welcome. We ask for your participation. It doesn't matter if you don't know anything about politics, you will learn here. The responsibility of our organization is enormous now..." Maids, carpenters, teachers, students, electricians were all in attendance. The meeting went on long into the night.

There is a momentum in Uruguay, in all of the Latin America. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.