I don’t know why I am choosing to write in English about something that is so close to my roots, given my roots are in Venezuela. Perhaps there’s no particular reason, and perhaps it’s because after just over 24 hours of the passing of Hugo Chavez I want to help my English-speaking friends understand the enormous mix of emotions going on inside of me (and I imagine, many more Venezuelans) right now… This is not an easy post to write, or a short one for that matter, but here I go.
Where I come from
I was born in Venezuela to a Venezuelan-born father and a Cuban-born mother. My mom left Cuba escaping from the Castro regime, so you can imagine the kinds of dinner and family party conversations I grew up around: I would listen to Alvarez Guedes jokes, hear rumors of Fidel Castro’s impending passing, again and again, along with stories of my uncle Roberto who was a political prisoner of the Castro regime for many years before being released and fleeing to Venezuela… you get the picture.
When Chavez ran for office for the first time in 1998, I campaigned for the first and only time in my life. Although in hindsight I now believe his contender was no better, I was so adamantly opposed to what Chavez stood for (it just sounded SO MUCH like everything I knew to be true from my Cuban-born family) that I was heartbroken when he won the election. So much so, that I distinctively recall starting to pack up that very night. To my reckless reaction my mom asked: “What are you doing?” “I am packing,” I said. “Do you have a plan?” she asked. I then realized that I needed to think things some more, but December 6, 1998 I knew it wouldn’t be long before I left Venezuela.
I spent the first part of 1999 looking for a a job opportunity outside of Venezuela, eventually getting an offer as Content Manager in Quepasa.com, a Hispanic portal based out of Phoenix, AZ, with my friends (the twins) Luis Garcia and Rafael Garcia. By the end of 1999, all was set: I moved to the US, followed soon by my then-fiancee, now-wife (Andreina) and started living the proverbial American dream. Other challenges followed, but that is part of a different story.
My feelings inside, first few years
For context purposes, when we moved to the US, Clinton was on the way out and George W. Bush was on the way in. I truly understood very little about the US political system, so I didn’t have much of an opinion after the 2000 presidential election. I did have a thing or two to say about what was going on back in Venezuela. In fact, Venezuela (and later diabetes, once I became diagnosed) were two of the prevailing topics I would blog about for years.
Over time, I started feeling torn inside…
One part of me wanted to see Chavez gone. At many points I even felt it would be fine for him to be ousted (I wrote about it multiple times) by outside forces. I rejoiced at the 2002 coup that ousted him, to cry when I saw him return less than 48 hours later.
At the same time seeing how the conflict in Iraq was beginning to unfold and, later seeing how the US entering Iraq became unjustifiable in light of the supposed threat of weapons of mass destruction, I began to doubt my feelings about how I felt about any body (internal or external) ousting another government.
This is not to say that I became a Chavez supporter, but rather that I stopped believing having him overthrown was the right way to go about getting him out of power.
Too much power, too little (polarized) information
Two more things started shaping my views about Chavez and his government in the years followed: the amount of power Chavez amassed, and the VERY limited reliable information that one could have about Venezuela, given the polarization of media.
Changes to the constitution to eliminate barriers to staying in power earlier on, along with the getting the Chavez-controlled Congress to approve an Enabling Law (Ley Habilitante) that allowed him to govern by decree even when his absolute majority in Congress was over, are two of many examples that show the level to which the concentration of power in the hands of very few gradually corrupted the country even more than in the decades prior to Chavez’s ascent to power.
The level of control that Chavez wielded was demonstrated earlier in 2013 by the decision of the country’s Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia) to give him all the time he needed to recover from his fourth cancer surgery and treatment, in spite of the complete lack of a medical panel confirming his ability to run the country. The constitution clearly states:
Artículo 233. Serán faltas absolutas del Presidente o Presidenta de la República: su muerte, su renuncia, o su destitución decretada por sentencia del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, su incapacidad física o mental permanente certificada por una junta médica designada por el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia y con aprobación de la Asamblea Nacional…
Article 233. An absolute absence by the President of the Republic will result from: his/her death, resignation, destitution as decreed by a decision by the Supreme Court, physical or mental incapacity as certified by a Medical Panel designated by the Supreme Court and with approval of the National Assembly…
Watching the streams broadcast by government-run VTV and opposition-driven Globovision, quickly leads you to realize that the truth cannot be all that black or white. The government has commonly painted a perfect picture, where everything it does is good and worthy, whereas the media in the opposition have painted a fundamentally negative picture.
Extreme positions are never good… and normally don’t adequately reflect the reality. So over time, I have tried to find alternative ways to stay informed. And I have found myself limited in my ability to do so because of how polarized almost everyone in connection with Venezuela is now. You are either Chavista or Oposicion; you are for the process or against the process; you are telling the whole truth or you are lying 100%… does this make anyone in the US think about the Democrats vs. Republican exchange? Please SEE where this leads, so the US doesn’t end up as polarized as Venezuela.
What I believe in
Since I left in January of 2000, I have visited Venezuela 3 or 4 times, so I can’t claim to have my finger in the pulse of the “man in the street” but every time I have visited Venezuela, I have tried to talk to people on both sides. Between my visits to Venezuela and other countries, and taking into account my years living in the US, I have confirmed a few things that I would like summarize in this short set of beliefs that govern what I stand by today:
- I believe in the need to care for those who are less fortunate. Charity helps, but policy can be made to have a lasting impact, to make sure that the common good takes precedence over the individual benefit.
- I believe in the importance of teaching people how to fish instead of just giving them a fish, to make sure that they can take better care of themselves down the road. In my everyday life, we call this empowerment.
- I believe in the importance of diversity: people who think different from you can teach you a great deal, if you are willing to truly listen. In fact, you may find out that there’s sometimes things that you have in common.
- I believe in the importance of respect. No matter how passionate you are about an issue. If you act like a bulldozer with people who have even a slightly different opinion than yours, there’s litte room left for dialog.
How does this tie in to what is going on in Venezuela today?
- One of the BIGGEST impacts Chavez has had in Venezuela is the destruction of the bubble that most of the Venezuelan middle and upper class used to live in. The majority of Venezuela lives in extreme poverty. Chavez acknowledged and leveraged this. That kept him in power as long as it did. It is upon every one of us to make sure that those who are less fortunate do not end up worse off after Chavez is gone.
- One of the BIGGEST things I criticize in Chavez is the degree to which he gave fish to people and didn’t teach them how to fish. In the PBS Frontline documentary “The Hugo Chavez Show” it becomes quite clear how “giving the fish” became the norm with several of the missions (initiatives) run by the Chavez government. Giving people the solution as opposed to teaching them the mechanics of problem solving and teaching them how to think for themselves is shortsighted and doesn’t really solve problems long term.
- Both sides of the political divide in Venezuela are… well, divided! To the point where each assumes the other side is full of “it” (“hablando paja“) and has no substance to any of its claims. This is a flawed assumption: each side has a lot to bring to the dialog and one of my biggest hopes for a New Venezuela is that we start listening to each other and we take into account everyone with good ideas who has the country’s interest at heart (regardless of their political inclination) into account.
- There have been a lot of back-and-forth insults in the past 15 years. There is no need or value in calling others names: period! It only creates an environment that makes a broad-based dialog more difficult. Insults and disrespect are not OK. So personally, I am NOT celebrating the death of Chavez.
Living in Berkeley, running a nonprofit…
Life has brought our family eventually to live in Berkeley, CA, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. You may argue that I am biased because of that. Or you may say what I write has a nonprofit slant, because in 2008 I co-founded a Berkeley-based nonprofit, aimed at connecting people touched by diabetes, inspired by the belief that nobody with diabetes -or their loved ones- should ever feel alone.
We all have a bias, so I admit to mine. But if you have met me at any point in my life (during which my views have evolved as I described earlier), I hope you will consider what I write and:
- If you are Chavista, you will see that I agree that it is important that nobody gets left behind, but I equally believe in the importance of fishing yourself and an even distribution of power.
- If you are part of the Oposicion, you will acknowledge that the time we had Chavez among us has touched us all.
Regardless of your inclination between Chavez and Oposicion, I hope the above lines make you feel compelled to root for the home team: todos los venezolanos!