My Chávez

Unlike most, I didn’t have my Chávez obituary ready. Folly, I know. But I also made a conscious decision to put it on the back burner for a few days. I may have missed the media frenzy, but if you’re not totally sick of reading about the passing of Venezuelan leader Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, here’s my two cents.

2012 Re-election campaign poster in Caracas City Center

2012 Re-election campaign poster in Caracas City Center. It reads “Chávez, Heart of my Fatherland.”

Starting around 4:45 on Tuesday, March 5th, my facebook wall and twitter feed were filled with the laments of mourners, obituaries, links to photo essays, exclamations of grief and of hope, and exhortations for a country divided to remain calm and be sensible. It’s a lot to take in. It’s a big deal when a head of state dies, but an even bigger deal when your head of state dies. And yet, Chávez wasn’t actually mine. He led a country I called home for a time, and though I have been tear gassed on Caracas streets, though I dance salsa like a Venezuelan, speak a lilting, eat-your-esses, caraqueño Spanish, and make arepas with the best of them, I’m still just a girl from suburban Colorado.

Much of what you’ll read over the next few days and months on Chávez’ death and the transition to a new government comes from people I worked with, people I went dancing with, people I debated with over the relative merits of some rum or another in one breath, and some policy or misión in another. Anything I write won’t compare to the access enjoyed by Jon Lee Anderson, or the passion for the paradox from Francisco Toro. Jens Gould, Simon Romero, Rory Carroll, Juan Nagel, Peter Wilson, and many more have several lovely turns of phrase in an attempt to sum up a man who was so adored, so reviled, so polarizing, so mesmerizing, so befuddling.

I won’t try to add to their stories, try to tease out the politics or predict what comes next. I can tell you, though, that Chávez had a tremendous influence in my life, though somewhat indirectly. Though I never met him, he opened doors for me and he shut them in my face. Through telling the stories of the country, mythology, government, and cult of personality he created, I found myself a different person. I cut my teeth as a writer, a journalist, a feminist, and an economist picking apart his words and policies, talking to his constituents, listening to his endless cadenas. I made some close, dear and wonderful friends, some native Venezuelans, some who ended up in Venezuela by chance, some who followed the almost unbelievable story that was Chávez. I quit the second real job I ever held in journalistic defiance of a Chávez-sympathizing (Chávez-bankrolled?) editorial board who mangled my words to fit their narrative. I made friends of strangers and enemies of friends debating Chávez, his programs, and his legacy. I was granted job interviews where the interviewers told me straight up they really just wanted to hear about my time in Venezuela and no real intention of hiring me (yes, more than once).

It may seem like a lot for any one man to have had such an influence, but Venezuela was, and still is, very much a world that is steeped in Chávez. My being in Venezuela, my friends’ and colleagues’ being in Venezuela, whether by choice or fate, was shaped so dramatically and fully by him. No other country I’ve spent time in has been quite like that, where the totality of an experience is so profoundly based in a single individual.

Caracas from Hornos del Cal Metrocable Station

Caracas from Hornos del Cal Metrocable Station

I’m not sure how well any of us can really convey that. I’ve tried. Many more have tried harder. And though plenty of people will try to explain to you what is going on in Venezuela over the next few days and months, I’m sure that most of them have no idea. For all her outward friendliness and beauty, Venezuela is not an easy place to know, and Chávez only made it harder.

One of the MetroCable Cars. This one says Pasión Patria, or Passion for the Fatherland. Others say "Love," "Freedom," etc.

One of the MetroCable Cars. This one says Pasión Patria, or Passion for the Fatherland. Others say “Love,” “Freedom,” etc.

What we do know is that lots of people are mourning today, and will be for some time, officially or unofficially. A very large segment of the Venezuelan population genuinely loved and adored him. Even for those that didn’t, his passing leaves a gaping hole in Venezuelan politics, in the Venezuelan psyche, and the future is rather uncertain.

I can’t imagine there will ever be another like him. My condolences to his family, his admirers, and the people of Venezuela. May he rest in peace.

New Mausoleum for Simón Bolívar's remains at el Panteón. And possibly those of Chávez?

New Mausoleum for Simón Bolívar’s remains at el Panteón.

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No manejamos este tipo de informacion or Caracas, part I

This is Part I of II, a bit of my August Caracas adventure. It’s a bit different style than perhaps other work you’ve seen here, but I hope you enjoy it. The following is cross-posted at Caracas Chronicles.

We’re not quite seated, but I’ve already launched into my well-rehearsed spiel. For perhaps the fifth time that day, I say I’m an American, an economics professor and I’m looking for data on domestic violence and gender-based violence in Venezuela. I want statistics, raw data, information about programs, confirmation that there really was no women’s shelter in the whole country, basically anything she could give me.

Milta Armas, a 40-something, curvy woman, starts telling me about how many women experience violence, but she refuses to look me in the eye. Armas keeps her hands in her lap, fingering a copy of the new domestic violence law, which I’m sure she’s going to hand to me later. The hype on legal reform, I expect, but not the details she’s ratling off, barely audible over the din of the INAMUJER lobby. I start jotting down her words and numbers, thinking this was easy. It only took me two ministries to start to get information. I just had to show up.

Then she pauses.

“These are, of course, what happens in the world, not in Venezuela. We don’t have these statistics for Venezuela.” Suddenly, I remember. “This,” I think to myself, “is why my expectations for this trip were low.”

I press her a little more. If those aren’t Venezuela statistics, what does she have? What data are even collected? What do we really know?

“Well,” she says without the slightest hint of embarrassment, “no manejamos este tipo de informacion.”

Oh brother.

It’s not just that the National Institute for Women, a program that houses a domestic abuse helpline and runs workshops for women living in slums on how to recognize and combat domestic violence in their homes and communities, doesn’t seem to have any information on the things they spend all day dealing with, it’s that the language she used was all too familiar. Her words mirrored exactly those of a representative of the Ministry for the Popular Power of Women, which is where I’d wasted the previous day. It was the same language I would hear later in the week as I talked to the National Police (CICPC) and when I tried to make an appointment with the National Defender of Women’s Rights.

No manejamos este tipo de informacion. And no one could tell me who does. My task, wasn’t just daunting, it was impossible. If there were no national statistics on domestic violence at the highest levels of government, I wasn’t sure to find much else.

In reality, of course, (and reality is always shady in Venezuela), there are statistics; it’s just a question of whether you know the right person to get a hold of them.

A source, who asked not to be named to make sure she keeps getting data, showed me a leaked booklet outlining statistics on the national 24/7 helpline 0-800-MUJERES, maintained and run by INAMUJER. They keep a tally of who is calling, why, what kind of abuse they are experiencing, whether they’ve called before, who the aggressor is, their mental state and more. It’s all very run-of-the-mill information that is collected on hotline calls in other places, certainly in the US. It also probably represents that best guess they have as to changes in levels of domestic violence over time, but it was not information they were willing to give to me, or even acknowledge that they had. I snuck a quick photo of a key data table – which you can see above.

I can understand why they might not trust me. Caracas’ violence problems are world-renowned and a source of embarrassment for the government and citizens; I see why they might not want a foreigner to publicize another ugly aspect of it.

Milta Armas told me that one time, there was some information, and they had put it on the website, only that as soon as they got it up, “there was an attack by the opposition to try to make the government look bad.”

“That is not a serious answer,” Ofelia Álvarez told me when I related the story. Ofelia runs Fundamujer, a nonprofit dedicated to studying and eradicating violence against women, out of her home and mostly on her own.

As one of the most visible and prominent advocates for women in Venezuela—nearly everyone I talked to sent me back to her—she has spent decades fighting the same fight I fought in just a few weeks. The issue is politically awkward: no one wants to fund studies, no one wants to support discussions. A pilot study she coauthored was abruptly defunded before it was rolled out to a representative survey group. No one handles that kind of information because there’s no desire to, she told me.

It’s not that we can’t; it’s that we don’t.

Violence and Venezuela

I spent much of the last few weeks of the semester trying to convince my Latin American economics students that Venezuela is unabashedly the craziest place on earth. I may have made this claim about several places I’ve lived, but new evidence shows that I may actually be correct about Venezuela.

In Al Jazeera this week, former Fulbright scholar and current Stanford PhD student, Dorothy Kronick, discusses the prevalence of violence in Venezuela and how Chavez amazingly escapes the blame for it. Comparisons of Venezuela’s level of violence have been made to Iraq during the height of the war, Ciudad Juarez, and other dangerous places, but Dorothy points out that unlike Iraq or Ciudad Juarez, there is no war going on in Venezuela. Petty crime often ends in murder, gang-related deaths are all too common, and I’ll add that violence against women, at least in my anecdotal knowledge, is rather high.

Despite the relative impunity with which these criminals act and the astounding levels of violence that permeate society, President Chavez does not seem to suffer electorally. In fact, Dorothy shows that the areas showing the highest growth in rates of crime have lost very few Chavez and chavista votes.

“People don’t seem to blame the government for the security problem,” Gerardo Gonzalez, an analyst with one of Venezuela’s top polling firms and a Central University of Venezuela graduate, told me in an interview. “In fact, it seems to us that violence might even help Chavez: the more people talk about violence, which they don’t attribute to him, the less they’re talking about unemployment, which they do attribute to him.”

So, there’s only so much you can complain about, but I still find it most amazing that Venezuelans don’t attribute la inseguridad (violence or insecurity, loosely) to Chavez. I never knew a pre-Chavez Venezuela, but it can’t have always been like this.

Over on Caracas Chronicles, my former editor gives his take on the same article: it can’t go on forever.