16 August 2003
Merida, Venezuela, N 08.3600 W 071.0900 137 kilometers from the Columbian border
As we climbed up the steps to enter the twin engine commuter plane of Avior Airlines, we discovered a rather large decal of NA de Vella, the Venezuelan Saint of safe travel, on the fuselage near the entrance and thought it curious that any air carrier would use a religious emblem for safe travel. Settling into our seats and glancing out the window it became obvious, you could see a patch of scorched paint on the engine housing about five feet long. The blistered paint turned into a darkened streak of exhaust smudge another five feet back to the trailing edge of the wing. My attention was then drawn to the dozen or so empty countersunk holes along the wing. None of the holes was of a major diameter but to be missing so many fasteners made me think of NA de Vella and wonder if this might be the only plane in the fleet with such a symbol of faith since it was evident that maintenance could not to be relied upon to keep the plane in the air. The EMB 120 Brasilia, built in Brazil as you might imagine, was outfitted with Hartzell propellers manufactured in Piqua, Ohio. I was hopeful that they were built long after I worked for the Hartzell company were I spent my summers rough grinding the throat of the raw castings before they were passed along to the more experienced employees.
After arriving safely in Caracas, we were bussed back to the terminal to change planes. All announcements were made in Spanish on these smaller regional airlines and the TV monitors gave little if any current information. But it was easy enough to listen for our destination and to head for the bus when Merida was mentioned. The next leg of the flight was on Santa Barber Airlines and the name alone increased our confidence. As the plane approached the airport in Meridia we could see the Andes stretching along both sides of the runway. Fortunately our luggage also arrived unscathed and after a short taxi we arrived at the Posada de Marigot. Posadas are family operated inns without the accouterment of larger hotels, things like restaurants, fans, air-conditioning or for that matter privacy. The room was very small but clean with a bed that would make the strongest back cry. Although firm, hollow areas were visible under the bed cover and they appeared to move from night to night. It was a matter of finding the spot and curling yourself around it until sometime during the night the depression shifted or you fell into the hole. The bano was equipped with a toilet that would not flush when it was raining so timing was critical. We couldn't get an explanation in English as to the cause of the phenomena but I didn't really want to know anyway. Surprisingly the room was equipped with cable TV and a remote. We later found out that this was a necessity because of the noise that came in from the courtyard. People sat in the courtyard and talked until midnight almost every night because of the unseasonably warm weather. Their voices echoed gaining in intensity and then came directly into our one window that opened into the courtyard. Add to this the fact that day and night the town resonated from the sound of car alarms going off. It was as if they were set off intentionally just to know that they worked or that their car was still around the corner. If that weren't enough, the front door to the Posada, the only available egress, was locked at night and whenever the desk clerk was drawn away from the front desk. I often wondered what the fire marshal would say about locking this door from the inside without a safety bar or any form of emergency exit. Visitor and guest had to then pound on the locked door in the middle of the night when wanting in or out. Thankfully CNN helped drown out some of the noise and the subtitled programs helped us reinforce our Spanish lessons. CNN didn't however help when the soldiers from the army barracks three blocks away took their 6:00AM run through the street. Oh well it was time to get up and pee anyway. The staff at the Posada was most friendly and also an aid to our Spanish endeavors since none of them spoke any English.
The Iowa Institute and our Posada were in the old section of town with narrow sidewalks and steep curbs where on occasion it was necessary to duck to avoid being hit by the mirrors of the passing buses even if you were on the sidewalk. This was especially true when the wrought iron bars extended beyond the windows. Iron bars were standard equipment on each and every window on the ground floor and on some buildings they secured every floor. Around noon most stores closed reopening at 2:00 mas e menos. The roll up doors of steel came down on all but a few businesses and even the Iowa Institute padlocked it's front door. Merida provided a wide selection of restaurants for lunch and dinner and the nicer ones had armed guards at the door. Even Mac Donald's had an armed guard in the middle of the day in the middle of town. I might also add that MacDonald's had one of the better internet connections at MacInternet. Most connections were 500 B per hour less than $.25 while MacInternet was 900 B for an air-conditioned room and high speed connection. The city police all wore bullet proof vest whether on bicycle, dirt bikes or in cruisers and we were not certain if all these precautions made us feel secure or endangered.
Merida played a significant role in the Venezuelan fight for independence and there are many statutes of Simon Bolivar and other officers of the great struggle for liberation. It is also the home of the University of the Andes and several language schools. The area attracts a good number of travelers due to the mountains, it's historic significance and the beauty of the surrounding terrain. A small community of artisans selling "objects de art" in the city's plazas on the weekends. The area is renowned for its hospitality and low cost. In fact our room was 22.000 B's per day while back in Puerto La Cruz our cat was staying in accommodations that cost 10.000 B's and as far as we know the cat didn't have cable TV. You could go to a nice restaurant, remember we're talking in relative terms and what you may deem nice would not necessarily be what we would call nice in Merida, and for 10.000 B's have pizza, lasagna, salad and all the beer you wanted. Hey that's four USD.
Class started promptly at 10:15 in the morning and let out for lunch at 12:15. The afternoon session was from 2:00 to 4:00 and homework consumed from 2 to 4 hours each night. I am not certain if anyone could have survived the class without knowing the declination of the personal pronoun and if one didn't know how to conjugate a verb, well go straight home and do not collect two hundred dollars. The staff at the school was well credentialed, the lesson plans were well thought out and the structure was in place to maximize the time committed to the process. We shared our class with a couple from London and had an enjoyable relationship with all the other students and teachers. During the second week there was a great deal of verbal work as the teacher would ask questions of each of us. I could sit back and in my mind answer most of the questions ask of the other students but then the instructor would turn her head at me and say Stefan, then it was like the proverbial deer in the head lights . Holy Jesus, Mary and Joseph what did she say. Repetir, por favor, well it wasn't the answer but it was a stall for time. Now my ears would start to turn red as my brain reaches the point of melt down. This agony has to be apparent on my face. What is she waiting on, give me the answer and let's move on. Wait, ah yes now the answer was coming to me, yes we have 4 children, yes that's it 4 children (cuatro hijos). But she didn't want 4 as the answer she wanted a sentence. This was language school not a school in training horses to count. I shake my head and stumble an answer that parrots a different form of the question. My pronunciation cannot be understood and finally she says that magic word, Bien, and she gives the answer correctly to the other students. My underarms are now wet and its only a short time until the next question comes my way. I look forward in the text and try to guess what the question will be. I fumble through my notes and the workbooks to find the outlines and lay it all out in front of me awaiting the next question. But suddenly the task is now changed and we have to pose questions to the rest of the class. Okay okay just let me write it out. It's too late the round robin has commenced. Quick, where are the cheat sheets. All in all a humbling experience for someone who thinks he knows all the answers.
On the weekend we traveled up the gondola to the top of the mountain which was over 5000 meters, higher than the Matterhorn and only a few feet less than Mont Blanc the highest peak in western Europe. On the way up the gondola would swing as it passed over the towers and the cabin occupants accented the swing with a resounding wheeee. After four stops to change gondolas and to become accustomed to the altitude we arrived at the top. Snow blew from the clouds that shrouded the larger than life statue of the Virgen de las Nieves (Virgin of the Snow) situated less than twenty feet from the door of the gondola station. Small children are passing out from altitude sickness creating work for the first aid station that administers oxygen and returns the children to the gondola for a quick retreat. There was no view of the villages below and the freezing temperatures made it uncomfortable for two cruisers accustomed to 90 plus temperatures. On the return trip, the conscious riders entertained themselves by singing songs and clapping to the music. It must have been that exhilaration one feels after accomplishing something that only a few people have done or they were all light headed from the lack of oxygen. At the lower levels donkey rides were available but we decided to forgo this discomfort in light of the lumpy bed we had to look forward to.
The political atmosphere in Venezuela is reaching a high pitch. During our stay in Merida there were two demonstrations calling for a referendum. One day the buses were on strike and the second demonstration was a car caravan of over 100 vehicles bringing traffic to a stand still. Venezuelan flags adorned each car and horns and whistles woke up the neighborhoods. We did encounter some anti American graffiti. George W seemed to be the target along with US oil interest. The Britt's and Tony Blair were also besmirched on the once blank walls along with the Venezuelan president Chavez. All in all it balanced out.
You may note that there are no pictures in the log entry and that's because our camera was taken.
On a Sunday afternoon two blocks from the Posada and one block from the school, two young hooligans pulled the camera from Rene's neck and knocked her down. We had decided that it would be okay for us to separate and I was already back at the Posada. Well it wasn't and not only did we lose an expensive camera but we also lost all the pictures of our excursion in Merida. Rene was o.k. - just upset and angry.
So for now, as Arnold would say, Hasta La Vista baby.
22 Agosto 2003
Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela
Political update in Venezuela
The political situation in Venezuela has become a sea of confusion so I have synthesized several news articles in order to provide background, especially if you're reading this from the US which typically provides little coverage of South America.
The current President, Hugo Chavez, was imprisoned in 1992 after participating in a failed coup of the standing president. He was later released in a general amnesty after serving only two years. In 1998 he became President by bringing together a coalition of the underprivileged and poor promising a program of redistribution of wealth while rooting out corruption in Venezuela's government. Shortly after his election, Venezuela suffered one of the worst natural disasters ever when torrential rains led to mud slides killing 40,000 and creating 300,000 homeless in this country of 24 million. One of the first items on the Chavez political agenda was to rewrite the constitution of Venezuela tailoring it to lengthen the term of the president and to transfer more power to the executive branch. Venezuelans in the middle and upper class demonstrated their lack of confidence in his government by halting investments and protecting their money which created an outflow of hard currency from Venezuela. The outflow of cash recently prompted a restriction on holding US dollars and froze the exchange rate on January 22, 2003 at 1595 B's to the USD. All of this is happening in a nation that is the third largest exporter of oil to the US. When Chavez took office the exchange rate was 650 B's to the USD and the pursuant economic melt down has resulted in a GDP that is shrinking by 12% per year and inflation that could reach over 30% as the government continues to issue debt at extremely high interest rates. Currency restrictions have given rise to a black market economy where the unofficial exchange rate is 2700 B's to the USD.
The Konrad Adenauer Foundation recently rated Latin American countries as to the degree of democracy based on political effectiveness, institutional integrity, governance and political and civic freedoms. Venezuela ranks next to last in all of Latin America countries. Chile ranked first even with its great disparity of wealth. In Venezuela malnutrition is on the rise and 15 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day. There is no doubt that the government has lost the support of many of the people but the régime has been able to remain in power despite an attempted coup and four national strikes one lasting for three months. The ineffective policies of the Chavez government have been exacerbated by a struggling world economy and the populace of Venezuela is paying dearly in terms of extreme unemployment.
The constitution allows for a recall of the President in the middle of a term. Over three million signatures supporting a recall have been collected and were recently sent to the CNE (National Electoral Council). The CNE has not at this writing been formulated and Chavez promised to roadblock the recall by challenging each signature and the age of the person signing since some were collected either too early or too late I am not certain which. Chavez joked that the only recall that he was aware of was the one in California. If the recall doesn't proceed quickly, time is on the side of the Chavez government with less than three years left on his final term in office. Chavez does however maintain some support since it was his administration that brought to light the plight of the poor people in Venezuela.
Massive demonstrations (200-300,000) have taken place in Caracas to bring world attention to the situation. Colin Powell recently stated that the US will be watching carefully as to how this government handles the recall efforts. Also watching is the World Bank wondering how the Venezuelan debt can be paid with such an unstable economy. The Chavez government has been supporting the Cuban government by sending 50,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba in exchange for 1000 Cuban doctors and additional teachers and sports trainers to work in the barrios of Caracas. It's interesting to note that Venezuela has over 8000 unemployed doctors.
Price controls have been imposed on staples such as corn, rice, flour, beans, lentils and eggs all of which are now in short supply. Eggs sell for $1.50 US for a carton of 30 when you can find them and the grocery stores carry them only as a convenience for their shoppers. Despite the large amount of oil exported to the US there is little hard currency to import necessary items into Venezuela thus creating shortages. Venezuela produces only half of the food it consumes and there are concerns that in the next six months this will bring about shortages. A country so rich in natural resources and so poor in government defies description. Import duties and tariffs for goods outside of South America perpetuate economic inefficiency and protect only the few.
Despite all this daily life goes on. Demonstrations are peaceful and many restaurants in this resort town of Puerto La Cruz are full although many have also closed. We live in a small enclave of the wealthy and see little of the poverty that ravishes the countryside. Traffic jams clog the streets and the marinas are starting to fill up even as some Venezuelan people are leaving the country.
Credible opposition candidates are preparing for an election that could happen before the end of the year and the key to new government will be to limit the number of names on the ballot. At one time Venezuela was the only South American country that was able to pay its bank debt and there were four full flights a day to Florida were Venezuelans visited Disney World and purchased inexpensive goods made in the USA.