Venezuela 2010: Talking Chavez with Cabbies

Note: This posts comes from an email I sent during a trip to Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama in June 2010.

I had an epic day in Caracas and have to send another update before the details leave my memory…

This afternoon Greg and I took a total of three cab rides. I guess I’ve never been outgoing or linguistically confident enough to really try to do this before, but given the fascinating political situation of Venezuela, I made an effort today to talk to all three cabbies about Hugo Chavez. I led in to each conversation by starting with small talk about the World Cup – did you see the US game this morning? Who are you supporting? Who do you think is going to win? (Different answers from all three – Portugal, Brazil, and Germany.) From there, they would inevitably ask where I was from or something else that allowed me to lead into the delicate political conversation. (Win: the second cabbie assumed I was Brazilian.)

The first cab driver was fairly opposed to Chavez. He talked about how he was university educated but had to drive the cab to put food on the table for his wife and two daughters. He acknowledged that Chavez has done some things that other presidents have ignored, and that they are for the better, but for the most part he thinks Chavez is leading Venezuela down an unhelpful and dangerous path.

The second driver loves Chavez, and I have to admit, I left his cab (after a 45-minute conversation about this) feeling more than a little socialist myself. He brought up some really good points: “at the end of the day, we are all human beings, and money and other personal possessions are not going to be enough to make us happy. Everyone needs love, and everyone knows how to love. Chavez is trying to make sure that we all have what we need to survive – right now there are people here who don’t eat. He’s making sure that everyone can eat. It doesn’t matter what else you can or cannot have; everyone in this country needs to have the basic necessities of life.” He also told me a lot about Venezuelan culture. “Race is just a construction of physical location. In Venezuela, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or where you’re originally from. Everyone is Venezuelan. There is no racism here. You will find no one who judges you for being who you are.” I asked this cabbie what he thinks of Obama: “He’s a clown.” He asked what I thought of him, and I said, “well, there’s a lot about American politics that I don’t like. No one is perfect. But I teach Black students, and the hope that his presidency has brought to them is incredible.” The cabbie then asked, “okay, but what has Obama done for the people like him?” And, other than the healthcare bill (which, to be fair, is a big deal), I couldn’t come up with too much else concrete. But maybe that’s expecting too much of a huge government. Obama’s got lots of great ideas that are getting lost in translation.

The third cab driver took a little while longer to warm up to me, but once I finally figured out the way to lead into the political conversation, he had plenty to say. He told me that a lot of people in Venezuela are rooting for Spain in the World Cup, and I told him that I thought that was a little surprising given how many signs there are that say “Independencia y Revolución” everywhere. He chuckled and said “I think that’s government misinformation…” I then asked point-blank what he thinks of Chavez, and he said, “he’s one of the worst things to happen to our country. His system doesn’t work economically. He’s limiting freedom of speech in the press. The poor are still poor, and professionals like me have had to take to driving cabs because there aren’t other jobs for educated people like us. There’s corruption everywhere, and money laundering. We’re gradually turning into a communist state like Cuba.” When I asked what he thought of Obama, he said “I wish he was our president.” The cabbie expressed his hope that Chavez’s party will lose the parliamentary elections in September; I asked if he thought the elections were legitimate, and he said, “Chavez supporters control everything.”

I wish I could have recorded all of these conversations – they were absolutely incredible. I’m going to talk politics with every single cab driver from now on! It’s also a great way to practice my Spanish (I’m so glad that I can understand 90% of what they say!) and to leave a positive impression of Americans here. Not that they have negative impressions of Americans, because I asked about that too. There are not a lot of Americans here, but as the second cabbie explained, it’s not about where you’re from. Once you’re here, you’re Venezuelan. And it’s true: I have found the people here to be incredibly friendly and helpful. This morning I made a Venezuelan friend: she is a six-year-old named Denali who was with her parents and older brother in the cable car that we took to the top of the mountain to look over Caracas (amazing). She started out on the side of the car with her family but for some reason came over to sit next to me and quickly threw her arms around me when she declared, “¡tengo miedo!” (I’m scared!) I got an adorable picture of her with me, and her parents were very nice as well and talked to us about our trip.

Anyway, I am excited to go to Colombia tomorrow, but I will be sad to leave Venezuela as well. it’s been a very interesting experience, and quite different from what I imagined. While everyone here has still advised us to be careful as we move about the city, I have yet to see what the fuss is about. We’ve walked through a variety of different areas, and I haven’t felt insecure at all – a pleasant surprise after all the State Department warnings. Fortunately, we depart for another country where the World Cup is a big deal – today we got stuck in a mall (it was actually recommended to me by multiple people, so don’t judge) while it poured rain and flooded (literally) the streets, but we joined the other caraqueños in the designated World Cup area where no fewer than 10 televisions to accomodate every vantage point were showing the Germany/Ghana game. Amazing!

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