Once upon a Time in Venezuela
Lowenstein, Roger, Newsweek
Byline: Roger Lowenstein
A writer revisits the complex land that gave us Hugo Chavez.
On my first assignment for The Daily Journal, the English-language newspaper in Caracas, I found my way to the Venezuelan Congress, a gem of colonial architecture in a lush quadrangle of palm trees. Upstairs in the press gallery, the local reporters were hacking away at ancient typewriters as a legislator promised ... what? My Spanish was inadequate; my ear ill-tuned to the thick criollo accents. "What is he saying?" I implored of one of the locals. "Pura mentira," the journalist replied: pure lies. No matter, he didn't stop taking notes for an instant.
That was 1978. Venezuela before Hugo Chavez was true to the description of the 19th-century journalist Tomas Lander, who characterized his country as "a nation of accomplices." He meant that the ruling elites, the landowners, and the church were complicit in a corrupt system and silent in their acquiescence. By the 1970s, the net of accomplices had broadened to include state oil barons, politicians, and bureaucrats--and possibly my journalist acquaintance, who dutifully recorded a legislator's promises he knew would never come to fruition.
The more I acclimated to life in Caracas, the more I understood the wisdom of Lander's description. One afternoon an official of the PDVSA, the state oil monopoly, was entertaining a bevy of journalists. PDVSA was considered a sacred national trust. Every schoolchild learned that Venezuela's oil was not to be lustily consumed but, rather, to be "sown"--reinvested to create new local industries and jobs. Yet the Scotch was flowing freely. "How can you pay for all this?" I inquired. The oil official-accomplice gave a guilty shrug. "There's plenty of oil," he said.
Eventually I was invited to be an accomplice. Venezuela's president was traveling to meet his counterpart in neighboring Guyana, and the government paid for a planeful of reporters, as if their summit were a second Yalta. On the press plane, each reporter was given a packet of credentials and instructions. To my surprise, the packet included $500 in crisp U.S. currency. (To the astonishment of a clerk in the presidential palace, I returned the money when I was back in Caracas.)
Payoffs to the press were routine. Publishers relied on the government for the advertisements that kept them in business. No specific favors were expected--just an acknowledgment of who was boss. Press criticism was fierce, but certain protocols were observed. The military in particular was never criticized.
The systemic corruption burned away at a Venezuelan Army tank commander named Hugo Chavez. Muzzled in his barracks, he dreamed of a Venezuela liberated from American influence, which he imagined would mean liberation from poverty and corruption and from the control of elite accomplices.
Resentment of America had long been an undercurrent in national life (in 1958 Vice President Nixon's car had been attacked by a mob on a visit to Caracas, though Jackie Kennedy, a few years later, got a rapturous greeting). American support of various local dictators hardly helped, nor did the arrogance of oil companies--even though their capital helped to raise the standard of living. My native-born colleagues used to kid me; "Cia!" they would say as I approached, playfully accusing me of working for the Central Intelligence Agency. …