Rolling the Dice in the Titanic’s Casino

It’s surreal to walk around Caracas, a vibrant consumer-driven metropolis, and see the same type of propaganda billboards you see in Havana. (I had been expecting more subtlety.) It’s one thing to see posters proclaiming “Socialismo o Muerte” (Socialism or Death) amid Havana’s crumbling squalor, but it’s a bizarre juxtaposition to see Caracas’ “Patria, Socialismo, o Muerte” (Fatherland, Socialism, or Death) banners vying for space with ads for Coke and McDonald’s.

Go to China or Vietnam, and you see a pre-existing Communist state paying lip service to its old Marxist orthodoxy as it embraces consumerist modernity. But the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez is a real oddity—a fantasyland that isn’t in on the joke, that doesn’t seem to realize those tired socialistic slogans are nothing more than retro kitsch. Even the thousands of Cuban advisers who come to Venezuela must know this, but they still gladly come to proselytize, especially since it gives them a chance to drink Coca-Cola and eat at McDonald’s. There is a rich future for a Latin American left, I am sure, and it will take many forms, but one reason Chávez has gotten as far as he has is that his project is so crudely passé and unsubtle, it is hard to take seriously.

My friend Simon Romero, the New York Times’ man in Caracas, memorably wrote in an August 2007 “Week in Review” piece that “picking up a newspaper in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela can sometimes feel like perusing The Onion.” Indeed, the paper delivered to my room—a serious broadsheet called El Universal—brings news of a hitch in the government proposal that triggered Simon’s observation: a plan to move clocks forward by half an hour to improve the “metabolism” of the citizenry. The leap into this brave new Bolivarian time zone was originally scheduled for the week I visited, but apparently there have been unforeseen complications, and the government tells the citizenry to stay tuned, pending further notice from the president’s office. The important thing is not to panic.

In other news, Transparency International has ranked Venezuela 162nd out of 179 countries in its latest global corruption index. (The ranking goes from cleanest to most corrupt, so this is not good.) This oft-cited index always bring to mind a joke that was popular when I was growing up in Mexico: “Hey, did you see that Mexico was deemed the fourth-most corrupt nation according to a U.N. study? Man, you should have seen the bribe the government had to pay not to come in first.”

El Universal’s opinion pages, I notice, are crammed with anti-Chávez screeds, with no attempt at balance. The government has clamped down on criticism on television—most notably by knocking RCTV, a popular private broadcaster that didn’t take its marching orders from Chávez, off the airwaves last May, in a move that bruised the president’s image around the world—but the opposition is alive and well in the print media. (The press is a lesser concern for the government, given the limited and self-selecting nature of a serious newspaper’s readership in a country like Venezuela.)

We grabbed lunch with a multinational corporation’s top executive in Venezuela. He doesn’t want to be overheard in a restaurant, so we eat in his office. He doesn’t even want to be overheard by the longtime employee who serves us, so each time she walks into the room, we have to change topics, abruptly breaking off from politics to chat about the weather or my childhood in Mexico. Such is the level of paranoia here.

The exec laughingly told me he has a hard time explaining Venezuela to his bosses back in the home office. In an economy overflowing with oil wealth that translates into government handouts, every month is a record-breaker for plenty of businesses, but there is a surreal fin-de-bubble feeling that this can’t last much longer—not just because the financial bubble may pop, but because the government could take your business away at any moment. No one in the private sector is eager to invest anything beyond what is absolutely essential to stay in business for the next few weeks; foreign direct investment has all dried up. There is a consensus in the business community that property rights and legal due process, weak to begin with in the Bolivarian republic, would all but cease to exist if Chávez got his constitutional reforms passed in the December 2007 referendum. His package of constitutional amendments would have allowed him to be re-elected indefinitely, watered down property rights, and strengthened Chávez’s personal control over the government’s purse strings. Nobody seemed to doubt that Chávez would get the sweeping changes approved, especially since one of the constitutional amendments would cut the work day from eight to six hours, without reducing pay. (In a stunning upset and reversal for the chavista cause, the “no” vote prevailed on Dec. 2 by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin. Much like in the aftermath of the failed 2002 attempted coup, Chávez has since struck a more conciliatory tone.)

Our lunch host confessed he wasn’t sure what the president’s endgame really is, or if he even has one. “Maybe he is just making it up as he goes along,” he sighed with a resigned shrug.

Though it seems to do little to alleviate the frightful traffic, Caracas boasts a modern and efficient subway system. In addition to plenty of propaganda ads in the stations—extolling the “motors” of the revolution—I am amused to see the same type of ads for remittance services (“Your money to your hometown by tomorrow”) that I am used to seeing in downtown Los Angeles. Except that instead of destinations in Mexico, the towns listed in these ads are all in Colombia, a poorer neighbor that sends hundreds of thousands of maids and other laborers to Caracas.

Downtown Caracas is nothing to write home about, lacking the colonial splendor of Bogotá or Lima or Mexico City. I did pay homage to the house where the libertador Simón Bolivar (for whom Chávez always leaves an empty chair at meetings) grew up. A law professor told me that there is, conveniently enough, a Bolivar quote to support almost any political position, but the one plastered on a downtown square concerns man’s need to tame nature, something he said in the aftermath of a terrible earthquake. Chávez and his allies often cite a Bolivar quote to the effect that the presidency is “like the sun that, firm in its core, gives life to the universe, and whose supreme authority must be perpetual.” Yikes.

Leslie and Miguel, Amanda’s cousins, throw a dinner party for us. Miguel is a thoughtful, well-read businessman. Talking to him and looking at his study suggests that if he had his druthers, he’d rather be a history professor. He echoes what I heard at lunch. Times are good, for now, but it’s an unsustainable bubble in so many ways. As another guest puts it, “Being in business down here is a lot like being on a hot streak in a casino, only when it’s time to cash in your chips, you realize you’re in the Titanic’s casino.”

The young, well-heeled guests at the party were no fans of Chávez—they made faces when I said I was looking forward to his Sunday talk show—but they are all quick to acknowledge that the corruption of Venezuela’s old political parties, and the country’s dramatic economic inequalities, paved the way for his Bolivarian revolution. They even applaud the amount of money he is spending to help the nation’s disadvantaged, though they complain that it mostly takes the form of unproductive one-time handouts aimed at buying ideological compliance rather than truly educating people. I encourage them to open up and let the Chávez jokes rip, but they are weary. “Things aren’t really that funny here,” I was told.

Then there is the constant theme of hate and paranoia across class lines. “It’s understandable for poor people in Venezuela to harbor ill feelings, hatred even, for rich people. You see that in plenty of countries,” Miguel said. “But what is alarming, and indicative of how messed up the country has become, is the degree to which a lot of rich people have come to hate poor Venezuelans.”

On a more mischievous note, Miguel pointed out that unlike the Cuban state’s dire “Socialismo o Muerte” slogan, the chavista version in Venezuela seems to offer an out, in that it proclaims “Patria, Socialismo, o Muerte.” It may simply be a grammatical oversight by an overzealous propagandist, he joked, “But I’d like to think I can still opt only for Fatherland.”