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Hugo Chávez’s Political Imperative: Saving Caracas

Venezuela was hardly the foremost topic on my mind when I recently traveled to Venice, Italy. All throughout the fall, I had been writing articles about political developments in South America and promoting my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press). I had gone to Venice to forget about my book for awhile and to attend an art exhibit put on by my mother, Joyce Kozloff.

One day I decided to go to the famous architectural biennale, located close to San Marco Square. To get to the exhibit, I took the vaporetto, a public boat used by Venetians to get around town. I was less interested in the usual architectural pavilions organized by individual countries than the rest of the show entitled "Cities, Architecture, and Society."

The exhibit addressed population growth in major world cities and its likely impact on people and the environment. After passing through separate rooms dealing with Bogota and Sao Paulo, I came to a section on Caracas.

As someone who has spent a decent amount of time living and working in the Venezuelan capital, I was intrigued to learn more from the exhibit. Caracas had always struck me as one of the least appealing South American cities. Loud, crime-ridden, polluted and anarchic, Caracas was in dire need of urban planning.

Smog, Buoneros, and Disorder

In 2000-2001, while pursuing research for my dissertation, I spent many months living in San Bernardino, a neighborhood located not too far from downtown Caracas. Next to my landlord’s condominium building stood an informal barrio. The housing there was improvised and was built up on the side of a steep hill.

Though San Bernardino was considered unsafe at night and the streets became deserted after 7 PM, one could at least breathe the air. The same could not be said of downtown, where my eyes and throat frequently felt sore from the smog. There, I could not walk down the street as it was clogged with so-called buoneros or informal street vendors.

After carrying out my research in downtown, I would take the subway to the Bellas Artes stop, located beneath San Bernardino. The subway came as a welcome respite to me after the relentless and daily assault on my senses. One of the few bright spots in the city, the subway system was clean and efficient.

Unfortunately, one had to get out of the subway at Bellas Artes and transfer to a bus to reach San Bernardino. Very early during my stay in Caracas, I was pick-pocketed by a gang of thieves as I was riding up the escalator in Bellas Artes. They had distracted me with a ruse on the escalator and I had little chance to see their faces.

Distressed by my experience, I found a cop and told him what had happened. We went back to the subway station, where the policeman pointed at a middle-aged man.

"That was the person who robbed you?" the cop asked.

I scrutinized the man’s face.

"I’m sorry officer," I replied after a moment. "I was robbed so fast that I couldn’t identify the thieves."

The cop was unconcerned by what I had said and took the man down to the station for questioning. As the two marched off down the platform I grew a little concerned and wondered what kind of treatment the man would receive.

For the rest of my stay in Caracas I had no more run-ins with the police. In fact, the cops seemed largely absent from the city’s streets (except for Altamira, an upper class district where they wore nifty outfits and rode bicycles). With a little effort, the police might have brought some security and order to Caracas. In San Bernardino, bunkered down in my room, I would hear the sound of distant gunshots. But, I never saw the police patrolling the neighborhood.

After my unfortunate encounter in Bellas Artes I exercised caution and did not run into more thieves.

Despite this, I had other problems. My daily bus ride to San Bernardino, for example, always proved to be a free for all. There had seemingly been little effort invested in urban planning in and around Bellas Artes, and chronic traffic would delay my trip home by up to an hour.

For relief from the smog and traffic, I would frequently go to Altamira or to Centro Comercial Sambil, a shopping mall.

2006: Return to Caracas

I left Caracas in 2001 and didn’t concern myself much more with the city’s affairs. Years later, now back in New York, I saw a harrowing film entitled Secuestro Express about kidnapping and police corruption in Caracas. The film was directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, who himself had been kidnapped. He and his friends had been grabbed, robbed of their money, ATM cards, and clothes.

The film fell under withering criticism from the government, which blasted it as an attack on life under the Chavez regime. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel denounced Secuestro Express as a "miserable film, a falsification of the truth with no artistic value."

Officials even threatened Jackubowicz with imprisonment, while the government’s film commission declined to submit the movie for Academy Award consideration. Despite this, Secuestro Express became the most popular movie in Venezuelan history.

This past summer, I received an invitation to speak in Caracas. Perhaps, I reasoned, the capital city had improved since 2001. The vision presented in Secuestro Express, I thought, must surely have been sensationalized in line with government claims. Maybe, more politically and socially conscious officials had addressed chronic problems and made Caracas a more habitable city for all. I headed back to the capital city with high hopes.

I was sorely disappointed.

To me, the city seemed more polluted, congested and unsafe than ever. Even more glaring, I saw more people than I remembered in 2001 sleeping in the street around Bellas Artes. At one point, exiting a restaurant near my hotel, a security guard warned me to exercise caution. It was about 9 PM and I felt like taking an evening walk. I didn’t see any cops anywhere in the vicinity and decided to beat a hasty retreat to the hotel.

Indeed, during my entire stay in Caracas I rarely saw policemen patrolling the streets. I quickly reverted to my usual pattern of heading to Altamira and the shopping mall in an effort to escape.

In the run up to the recent presidential election, the opposition media on TV was screaming about the lack of security under the Chavez government and urban crime.

Provea Paints a Bleak Picture

For a less biased view, I turned to Marino Alvarado, the Director of Provea, a respected human rights organization in Caracas. Provea’s office was located downtown near the National Library where I used to conduct research.

The area was scary: nearby, I spotted a young man who was drugged out of his mind and wildly gesticulating in the street.

"During the Chavez mandate," said Marino, "the security situation has worsened. We’ve seen a significant increase in homicides and robberies. The police cooperate quite a lot with criminals. Every day there’s another item in the press about another member of the police who is involved with common crime, drug trafficking, bank robbery, and rape. It’s very difficult to fight crime when the police are part of the problem."

"There are both national and municipal police forces in Caracas," Marino continued. "Nevertheless there is no coordination amongst the different police forces. Every day the violence becomes bloodier. One form of crime that has increased considerably is kidnapping. The criminals in Caracas are well armed. At this point, robbery at knife point is incredibly outdated. There are a lot of firearms on the streets. Almost always in the polls, insecurity is rated as the number one concern amongst the public."

Talking with Marino was a sobering experience. Despite the many social programs undertaken by the government, clearly much more needed to be done in Caracas to encourage a sense of civic mindedness and restore public confidence.

After several weeks in Caracas, I left the city and continued my travels. It was a relief to be rid of the paranoia, pollution and congestion in the capital.

Caracas and Its Historical Evolution

Though Venice has its own urban problems having to do with overcrowded tourism, the city has an organized system of public transportation: the water vaporettos. In contrast to Caracas, crime was not an issue in Venice and I took in the sites at a relaxing and leisurely pace.

At the architectural biennale, I read more about the urban history of Caracas. The problem, according to the exhibit, was that Caracas, originally founded in the 16th century, expanded dramatically during the 1950s oil boom. It was then that the city absorbed many rural residents who moved into informal barrios.

To this day, the city’s fabric is characterized by the barrios, which dot the steep green mountains around Caracas. Currently, 40% of city residents live in barrios. Nevertheless, Caracas is smaller than many other Latin American mega-cities, and has been blessed with a tropical climate, abundant fresh water, and fertile soil.

I was surprised to learn that prominent architects had played a role in the city’s urban planning. Robert Moses, for example, advised the city about its freeways while Le Corbusier sketched out a modernist vision that later materialized into the immense 23 Enero housing project.

Despite these early efforts at fostering order, the city grew anarchically. In the Petare district, multi-story housing grew along steep inclines. Problematically, new housing projects lacked access to public transportation. Meanwhile, the affluent, who built gated homes and golf courses, turned their back on the poor who had little access to basic services such as water, sewage, schools and jobs.

The exhibit presented some startling statistics concerning Caracas. For example, at times over 100 people were murdered in one week in the Venezuelan capital, many under the age of 18. In line with what I had witnessed and heard, Caracas was said to have weak law enforcement and a flourishing drug trade.

Saving the Barrios

I browsed the exhibit further, where I was intrigued by a multi media display showing photos and video of Caracas barrios. According to the display, local authorities had refrained from demolishing the barrios, instead embracing a "retrofitting" strategy. Today, there are small medical centers, gyms, and community kitchens that foster a sense of civic pride in poor areas.

I was particularly struck by a video dealing with a poor barrio called San Rafael/La Vega. The neighborhood, which I was unfamiliar with from my various stays in Caracas, was located in mountainous terrain. According to the exhibit, San Rafael/La Vega is one of the largest spontaneous settlements in Caracas, occupying over 400 hectares and housing some 95,000 residents.

The World Bank has sought to integrate San Rafael/La Vega, physically and socially, with the rest of Caracas. Residents themselves helped to plan the project and carry out construction. The goal of the plan has been to improve services and transportation while building new public spaces.

Gimnasios Verticales: An Innovative Strategy

In an effort to curb violence in Caracas, local authorities have pushed an innovative strategy: construction of new gyms. Informal settlements in the city have historically lacked access to sports facilities. One pioneering project, "Bello Campo," transformed a pre-existing soccer field in the municipality of Chacao into a multi-level sports complex or gimnasio vertical.

The complex, which accommodated up to 200 people, was located in between formal and informal neighborhoods. Free to all residents, Bello Campo has succeeded in bringing together a wide range of local residents. Every year, according to the exhibit, Bello Campo receives 180,000 visitors. Most importantly, since the inception of the gym crime has decreased by 45% in the neighborhood, which has become one of the safest in Chacao municipality. According to the exhibit, Bello Campo is not unique: a video display screen showed additional city locations for other gimnasios verticales.

Solving Caracas’s social problems will surely prove to be one of the most vexing and daunting challenges for President Chavez in his second term. Gimnasios verticales and urban redesign at San Rafael are promising developments. The government will have to do its utmost to integrate other barrios into the urban fabric. Failure to do so will provide further ammunition to the opposition, which will charge that the Chavez government has failed to rein in crime and insecurity.

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Another Saber Rattler in Latin America: Robert Gates and Venezuela

Now that Robert Gates has been confirmed by the Senate, the question becomes: what does the emergence of the new Defense Secretary mean for Latin America? Under Gates’ disgraced predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. pursued a bellicose stance towards leftist regimes such as Venezuela. Rumsfeld led the charge against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, remarking that "He’s a person who was elected legally, just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally."

Predictably, Venezuela’s response was not long in coming. Vice-president José Vicente Rangel categorized Rumsfeld’s statements as "desperate" and "irrational." He strongly attacked the U.S. Defense Secretary, commenting that it was Bush, not Chavez, who most resembled Hitler. "If some politician or President can be compared with Hitler, it is Bush, because he [Bush] has invaded countries, he has massacred people, he has created prisons in various parts of the world," Rangel said.

Undeterred, the indefatigable Rumsfeld barreled onwards, making completely unsubstantiated claims that Chavez had sought to foment unrest in Bolivia. At one point, he told reporters in Paraguay that "there certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways."

Rumsfeld’s comments prompted concern on Capitol Hill, even amongst fellow Republicans. Senator Arlen Specter, a member of the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. Congress, grew alarmed that Rumsfeld’s hot headed stance towards Chavez was complicating joint U.S.-Venezuelan counter-narcotics efforts. In a letter to Rumsfeld, Specter said diplomatically, "it may be very helpful to U.S. efforts to secure Venezuela’s cooperation in our joint attack on drug interdiction if the rhetoric would be reduced."

Gates’ Predecessor: Ratcheting Up the Pressure on Venezuela

Even as the U.S. moved to arm the Colombian army to the teeth, Rumsfeld blamed Venezuela for destabilizing the Andean region. "I can’t imagine why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47’s.," he said during a news conference in Brasília. "I just hopethat it doesn’t happen I can’t imagine that if it did happen, that it would be good for the hemisphere," he added.

Needless to say, that kind of rhetoric didn’t help to smooth tensions. For years, authorities in Caracas have been worried about the lawless and violent 1,200 mile Colombian-Venezuelan border. Political violence from Colombia has spilled across the border, with the U.S.-funded Colombian military and right wing paramilitaries routinely making incursions into Venezuelan territory.

The paramilitaries, allegedly tied to the Colombian armed forces, have pursued refugees into Venezuela, where they have killed or kidnapped those fleeing the violence. Even worse, the Chavez government claims that Colombian paramilitaries have fired on Venezuelan security forces. Ongoing clashes have led to the untimely deaths of Venezuelan military personnel. Chavez has claimed, plausibly, that he needs to modernize the army so as to defend Venezuela’s westernmost frontier.

Chávez, angered by the ex-Secretary of Defense’s efforts to demonize Venezuela, called Rumsfeld a "war dog." In yet another memorable Chavez quip the Venezuelan President remarked, "The dog says in a cynical way that he knows no one who is threatening Venezuela, so he does not know himself. We should give the little dog a mirror so that he can see his face."

Rangel added to the anti-Rumsfeld broadside in Venezuela by remarking that the U.S. Defense Secretary was "The Lord of War." He then pointed to U.S. hypocrisy as regards arms buildups. "In Venezuela," he declared, "we are worried about the elevated military spending by the United States, which stands around 450 billion dollars what are they fearing in order to justify such high military spending?"

Gates: Bombing Nicaragua

On the surface at least, Gates’ ascendancy would seem to underscore a move away from the aggressive foreign policy espoused by neo-conservatives. Chavez himself has rejoiced in Rumsfeld’s political demise. The Venezuelan leader beamed as he read aloud a news story about the ex-Defense Secretary’s resignation. "Heads are beginning to roll," he said during a news conference. "It was about time he resigned. The president should resign now."

Chavez should think twice, however, before rushing into celebration. Robert Gates’ background suggests that he may pursue just as aggressive a policy as his predecessor in Latin America. Of particular concern is Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas recently returned to power under the leadership of Daniel Ortega. Given Gates’ historic opposition to the Sandinistas, it’s possible that the U.S. may try to destabilize the poverty-stricken Central American country once again.

In 1984, Gates, who was then CIA Deputy Director, recommended to his boss, William Casey, that the United States use air strikes to destroy Nicaragua’s "military buildup." In his memo, Gates remarked that he was advocating "hard measures" that "probably are politically unacceptable."

That kind of rhetoric and approach suggests that Gates may prove just as bellicose as the neo-conservatives. When he was queried about the Gates memo, Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. (an organization pledged to uncovering and declassifying information at the highest level of government), remarked "It sounds like Donald Rumsfeld. It shows the same kind of arrogance and hubris that got us into Iraq."

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Blanton added that Gates’ advocacy of bombing Nicaragua was extreme at the time. "It sure wasn’t a mainstream opinion," he said. "Most Americans thought we shouldn’t be doing anything in Nicaragua. How possibly was our national security interest at stake?"

When Congress forbade funding the Nicaraguan Contras, Ronald Reagan used the proceeds of arms sales to Iran to fund the rebels. According to documents, Gates apparently knew about Oliver North’s efforts to raise money for the Contras; critics claim that the new Secretary of Defense did not undertake sufficient measures to stop the scheme from going ahead. Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who investigated the Iran Contra scandal, remarked that Gates was "less than candid" about his role in the affair but did not bring charges.

Gates, SAIC and Venezuela

The question now is whether Gates has changed his views regarding Latin America or still wants to provoke confrontation with leftist regimes. That issue has now become a prominent one, given the reemergence of Gates’ old nemesis, Daniel Ortega. Though Ortega has jettisoned much of his earlier anti-U.S. rhetoric, the Sandinista leader has cultivated a budding alliance with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (for a detailed analysis of these developments, see my earlier Counterpunch piece, "In Nicaragua, a Chavez Wave?"). Nicaragua is dirt poor and wracked by debt, but Ortega can now count on oil shipments from Venezuela, a country which is wielding its political influence throughout the region.

Blanton has claimed that it would be a mistake to look at Gates’ 22-year old memo as a reflection of his current day thinking. When Gates came under scrutiny for his alleged role in Iran Contra and his bid to become CIA Director in 1987 proved unsuccessful, the ambitious intelligence man became, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, "chastened" and his earlier arrogance was "diminished." According to Blanton, Gates changed once he became CIA Director in 1991. "Very possibly," noted Blanton, "the Robert Gates nominated for secretary of Defense is the Robert Gates who is the best CIA director we ever had, and not the Robert Gates who was a ‘mini-me’ Rumsfeld."

Gates’s background, however, suggests that he may not significantly alter Rumsfeld’s Venezuela policy. In 1993 Gates left government after working 27 years in the intelligence business. But, he was never far from the corridors of power. Gates joined SAIC (Science Applications International Corp.), a shady contractor for the Pentagon, CIA and other federal agencies, where he served on the board of directors. SAIC, which reported $7.5 billion in earnings in 2005, is involved in everything from intelligence gathering to Iraqi reconstruction for the Pentagon.

Gates’ tenure at SAIC should give Chavez pause. As I document at great length in my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (recently released by St. Martin’s Press), SAIC has played a dodgy role in Venezuela. In 1996, SAIC signed a joint venture with PdVSA (the Venezuelan state oil company) to handle the firm’s IT operations.

According to Chavez, however, the joint venture, called Informatica, Negocios y Tecnologia (known by its Spanish acronym INTESA), had ties to the CIA. SAIC, charged Chavez, was using INTESA as a means of conducting espionage. During the confrontational oil lock-out of 2002-3, when the Venezuelan opposition sought to bring the economy to a halt and force Chavez from power, PdVSA sustained serious damage to its IT system. The Chavez government claimed that INTESA was involved in the sabotage. When the lock-out fizzled, Chavez promptly discontinued INTESA.

Gates Sails through Senate Confirmation

Though Gates’s tenure on SAIC’s board of directors proved brief, he maintained ties to the company even after leaving when he joined the advisory board for VoteHere, an electronic voting machine firm tied to SAIC. Given his past involvement with SAIC, one would think that the Senate would have at least touched on the issue during the extraordinarily brief one day confirmation hearing.

I have reviewed the transcript from the hearing and neither the words "SAIC" nor "Venezuela" was broached by any Senator (not to mention Nicaragua). Gates was resoundingly confirmed by a vote of 95-2 in his new position. The two dissenting votes, in fact, did not come from Democrats but from pro-war Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Jim Bunning, who disliked Gates’ criticism of the war in Iraq.

The Democrats, coasting on their recent victory in the mid-term elections, had the opportunity during Tuesday’s confirmation hearing to show the American public that they were concerned about the direction of U.S.-Latin American relations. Though Rumsfeld, through his public utterances, did much to erode trust between Venezuela and the United States, the new Secretary of Defense could chart a new course. By failing to question Gates on his past or his views on Latin America, the Democrats have signaled that they are not overly concerned with reining in Bush’s hawkish foreign policy in the region.

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Chávez Against Rosales: Venezuela Prepares to Vote

With the Venezuelan presidential campaign shifting into high gear in advance of tomorrow’s election, Caracas looks as polarized as ever. Recent demonstrations have underscored the great political rift dividing Chavez followers from the opposition.

Last week, supporters of Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate, thronged streets and major highways. The very next day, hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, dressed in their trademark red clothing, turned out onto the streets in support of the president. Some marched through Altamira, a wealthy district in the eastern section of the city which is sympathetic to Rosales.

While in Caracas I was struck by the changed political atmosphere which prevailed in the city. Indeed, much had changed since I lived in the city in 2000-2001. I had gone to Venezuela then to pursue research on my doctoral dissertation, and spent much of my time between San Bernardino, a hillside neighborhood where I had rented a room, and downtown, where I used to go to do archival work.

At that time, Chavez was still consolidating his political power and had not yet initiated controversial social and economic programs. As I recount in my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press), many folk in San Bernardino were beginning to grow suspicious of Chavez. The neighborhood had once been affluent; Nelson Rockefeller had even built a famous hotel in the area, the Hotel Avila.

In more recent years, however, poor residents had taken over a hillside next to my landlord’s condo. I was warned that the people were Colombian and should be avoided at all cost as they were violent. After I finished my day’s work at the archive downtown, I would head to the Institute of Advanced Business Studies (known by its Spanish acronym, IESA). The institute had generously agreed to provide me with a work visa in Venezuela so I could pursue my research.

The school was located a couple blocks from my apartment building, and I frequently made use of IESA’s computer room. The school, with a quiet and tranquil atmosphere cordoned off by gates, was a refuge from polluted and congested downtown. The students, who in general looked whiter than many folks in the city center, used to demonize Chavez as a dangerous radical.

I left Venezuela in the summer of 2001, and judging from my discussions with many members of the middle class, social antagonism was starting to grow. However, Caracas still hadn’t achieved the level of popular mobilization that we’ve seen in recent years. During and after the coup of 2002, however, that would change as the city became more and more polarized.

One physical symbol of the growing political radicalization within Caracas is the proliferation of street murals. Over the course of about three weeks this summer, I had the opportunity to see a lot of the new public art. At one point, while taking a grimy bus from the mountains down into downtown, I saw signs on the highway reading "Let us unite and we will be invulnerable."

The quote was attributed to Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator and independence hero against Spain whose profile appeared on the mural. Throughout the city, murals depicting patriot leaders such as Antonio Jose de Sucre are commonplace. I saw one mural of the independence fighter Felix Ribas outside of a government sponsored cooperative. Appearing next to Ribas was a portrait of Chavez, wearing his characteristic red beret.

Later, I went to Bolivar’s Native House (Casa Natal de Bolivar) in downtown. The staff was in the midst of restoration of the colonial building, which had a red brick tile roof. For Chavez, Bolivar, who liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule, carries symbolic importance. The president has renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (the government had to redo all the country’s stationery at great expense), and addresses his people on TV while sitting underneath an oil portrait of the Great Liberator.

According to Mercedes Garcia, the director of Bolivar’s Native House, Chavez had been able to awaken a historical interest amongst the masses. As a result of the president’s speeches, Garcia told me, more people were heading to Venezuelan historic sites and had undergone a psychological shift. In the schools, children were now leaning more about Bolivar than ever before. In her museum Garcia noted an increase in the amount of visitors, which now amounted to 3,500 per week. Garcia added that many soldiers were now coming to Bolivar’s House and that there was greater historical curiosity within the armed forces.

In 2000-2001, I was always careful not to linger in downtown Caracas after hours. In San Bernardino, my landlord advised me not to go out after 7 PM. Apparently my neighbors had similar ideas: in the evening, the streets around IESA were deserted. At night I would like awake in bed, the silence punctuated only by the occasional sound of distant gunshots.

During my recent trip, I cannot say that I sensed much of a drastic improvement in Caracas. In downtown I found it difficult to breathe due to the pollution. My eyes and throat frequently felt sore from the smog. Meanwhile, downtown seemed as anarchic and unsafe as ever. Indeed, I found it difficult to walk on the street as it was taken over by the buoneros (informal street vendors). The buoneros sell everything from CDs to arepas, a kind of Venezuelan corn pancake. Compared to five years earlier, there were more homeless people sleeping in the streets around Bellas Artes, a grimy area falling to pieces.

In light of their brutal everyday struggle, it is not surprising that many residents here have become politicized and routinely turn out for Chavez’s mass street rallies. To some, Chavez’s hard core supporters are a menace. Speaking to one well-to-do businessman in Altamira, a wealthy Caracas neighborhood, I inquired about activists who attended Chavez’s mass rallies. "They are fanatics," he replied.

To get more perspective about growing social polarization, I traveled to the neighborhood of Chacaito and the offices of the Venezuelan opposition party, Primero Justicia. There, I met with Gerardo Blyde, General Secretary of the party. Blyde was clean cut, had slicked back hair and wore a blazer.

Blyde admitted that in Caracas, there was a real discrimination in terms of services. The poor had little access to basic infrastructure, he commented.

"In New York," he said, "the water you get in Queens or Brooklyn is as clean as the water you receive on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. That kind of equality in services is not evident in Caracas. Unfortunately, Caracas grew in an amorphous manner which was disordered, adequate planning was not put into services, and this has given rise to chaos."

To get a sense of how the other half lived, I went to Altamira. On one day when I was there, I noticed workmen tending some flowers planted nearby. Though still polluted, the neighborhood had a fountain in the main square and tree lined streets. In the cafes, women flaunted jewelry, surprising to me in light of growing kidnapping of wealthy residents in the capital.

At a nearby store, I spoke with the same businessman who belittled anti-Chavez supporters. During the oil strike of 2002-3 [designed to shut down the oil industry and bring down the Chavez government], he remarked, well dressed and educated folk tried to keep his store from opening and surrounded the premises. Finally, he had called the police. Personally, he had just as much disdain for the elitist anti-Chavistas in Altamira as the hard core Chavistas.

Blyde admitted that in 2002 many of the elite were paranoid about the Chavistas coming into their homes. Since then, however, he said that the Caracas elite, like much of the rest of the city, was not fearful of political violence as much as everyday street crime.

"Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world," he said. "Because of the lack of employment and lack of income, the city is very violent."

Rafael Uzcategui, media coordinator at the human rights organization Provea, agreed with Blyde that much of the paranoia had decreased since 2002. However, he also stated that the political divide had widened once again in advance of the election.

Five years earlier I’d met Rafael in Caracas. At that time he had been a student at the Central University and frequently wrote for the anarchist newspaper El Libertario. Rafael was still involved with the paper, but he confided to me that he did not feel comfortable selling El Libertario on the campus of the Central University of Caracas.

There, he said, there were pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez groups. His circle was in the minority, and members of El Libertario felt pressured by both sides. Even an elder member of the group was insulted when he attempted to distribute materials. Rafael said that he was no longer on speaking terms with many former friends owing to political differences.

"There are pro-Chavez zones of city and anti-Chavez areas," Rafael said. "We have always been interested in putting on cultural events and showing movies," he added. "When we put on activities in opposition areas, we are accused of being pro- Chavez." But, he continued, "In a pro-Chavez barrio, they said we were right wing imperialists."

During the April, 2002 coup, he said, members of El Libertario had received a lot of death threats, hateful e-mail, and harassing telephone calls. The group’s Web site had been hacked and destroyed during a meeting of the World Social Forum, and they had had to launch a new page through a more secure server.

"We have had to put up with a low intensity civil war in this city," Rafael commented.

Back in 2002, Rafael said, people would judge you based on the newspaper you read. If you bought El Nacional, you were automatically perceived as anti-Chavez. If you were seen reading Ultimas Noticias, you were assumed to be pro-Chavez.

"In 2002," Rafael added, "If you went out with red on you could feel the pressure of people looking at you in the metro."

For me personally, the issue of color as a political marker is one of the most interesting facets of Caracas political life. In recent years, red has become the official color of the Chavistas. In Catia, a poor Caracas barrio, I visited a cooperative where women were busily sewing red T-shirts for the state-run oil company, PdVSA. On another occasion, I witnessed pro-Chavez followers painting over an opposition mural in front of my Caracas hotel. They were all wearing red.

On a recent trip to Coral Gables, Florida, I had the opportunity to discuss these questions with Dr. Steve Stein, an old mentor of mine who is currently the director of the Latin American Studies Program at University of Miami.

"The Sandinistas had red and black and they really used those colors a lot," Stein said. "In the nineteenth century political parties had colors in Argentina; the liberal and conservatives had light blue and red. Under Rosas’s authoritarian regime in Argentina you had to wear something red. So, color as a means of political identification has been a longtime fixture of Latin American politics." [for those interested in reading the rest of this interview, see the upcoming December edition of the Brooklyn Rail which will shortly be available online].

The name of the game in Caracas has been winning the allegiance of the middle class. According to Blyde, the vast majority of the middle class voted for Chavez in 1998.
"But," he said, "that middle class is accustomed to getting the kinds of services that are common in today’s world. They’re not rich, they’re not multimillionaires from Manhattan, they’re who have studied, who have worked hard to get their car, their apartment, their house. These people felt threatened by speeches made by Chavez: he was going against what they had built up over the past twenty or thirty years."

"Thirty years ago," Blyde continued, "there was no middle class. There were some rich people and a few families. The rest were poor, like the typical division in Latin America. They felt threatened by Chavez’s rhetoric stressing ‘Socialism for the Twenty First Century.’ They thought they were going to have their standard of living taken away. Chavez then lost the middle class."

Once, while eating in a Tasca (Spanish style restaurant) near to my hotel, I fell into discussion with a middle aged couple. The woman, who was of Spanish descent, said that if Chavez won again she would leave the country. Her husband owned a print making shop, which had done well economically. But, the two of them were fearful of Chavez’s intentions and believed that the Venezuelan president might impose communism.

Speaking to the amiable night watchman in my hotel, I asked him about growing political tensions in Caracas. He said that he was a Chavista, as was his family, but that he was not a fanatic. He disliked Chavez’s program, Alo, Presidente!, but occasionally watched the other state channel, Vive TV.

As a whole, he said, the middle class was divided. Some were with Chavez, others were against, and some comprised the so-called "ni, ni" bloc (neither with the opposition nor with the Chavistas). He personally believed that the middle class had not become very anti-U.S. as a result of Chavez´s speeches.

"People are just as consumerist as before," he said, "perhaps more as the economy is now doing better." Some middle class, he said, had sold their property after the coup and moved abroad. But then, he said, they found that life wasn´t so easy and had to return to Venezuela.

Currently local and state authorities as well as government ministries fund public murals in Caracas. My favorite was a huge piece near the Bellas Artes metro station not far from San Bernardino. The piece is comprised of several panels, each of which is perhaps one storey tall. The mural depicts Venezuelan history from the colonial period to the present. In the first panel, the mural shows prosperous owners of great cocoa plantations and black slaves rising in revolt. Another panel depicts Venezuela’s experience with oil in the twentieth century. Sitting on top of a big barrel of oil was none other than Juan Vicente Gomez, a dictator who ruled the country from 1908 to 1935. Gomez, who was installed in a U.S.-supported coup d’etat, developed a strategic alliance with American oil companies. Simultaneously, Gomez presided over the country through a repressive spy and police network. In the mural, next to Gomez, we see a prisoner holding on to the iron bars of a jail cell. The Gomez era was notorious for its horrible prisons, such as the terrible dungeon known as La Rotunda.

In supporting such public art, the Chavez authorities are clearly trying to compete with materialistic, U.S.-style billboards and advertising all over the city. In downtown Caracas, the desk clerk at my hotel remarked that in his view, the murals had not made much of an impact on public consciousness. I put some of these questions to Steve Stein.

"If we look back on the Mexican Revolution, which was probably the beginnings of this kind of political mural art," Stein said, "there was not a lot of subtlety in the great Diego Rivera or Orozco murals either. Did they actually indoctrinate people towards a certain ideology? And the answer is probably not. My sense is that after a while, you don’t even see them anymore."

As for Caracas, Stein added, we need to pose crucial questions about the overall impact of the murals. "Is the murals effect greater than the products of an international, globalized consumer society. I don’t know if I have the answer to that question."

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Venezuela: Secession in the Oil Zone

With the Venezuelan presidential election fast approaching on December 3, political tensions have reached a new high. Recently, the Venezuelan Attorney General initiated an investigation to determine whether a right-wing organization called Rumbo Propio ("Our Own Path"), which has placed banners in Zulia state advocating for regional separatism, is guilty of treason. Zulia, located in the westernmost area of the country, is home to much of the country's oil industry. Maracaibo, the Zulia state capital, is the second largest city in Venezuela.


President Hugo Chavez has accused his opponent in the presidential election, Manuel Rosales, the Zulia governor, of fostering a separatist movement, "together with Mr. Danger"—a reference to US President George W. Bush. Ever since Chavez returned to power after a brief coup in 2002, the United States has channeled millions of dollars to Venezuelan organizations, many of which are highly critical of the regime.


The United States, according to Chavez, is encouraging such unrest so as to benefit from the state's significant oil resources; Rosales denies the allegations. The Attorney General has stated that he has no evidence linking the US to a secessionist plot. However, he claims that the US Ambassador, William Brownfield, had a close relationship to Rosales and has frequently traveled to Zulia.


In light of the fiery accusations, it is instructive to revisit some of the murky history of US involvement in the region—and the long legacy of shadowy machinations by US oil companies in Zulia.


The United States and Zulia Secessionism in World War I


In 1908, the US helped to support a military coup d'etat in Venezuela launched by Juan Vicente Gomez. Gomez's primary goal was to establish a strong, centralized state. To achieve this, he would have to head off secessionist sentiment in Zulia. Shortly after Gomez's seizure of power, in fact, a former senator and diplomat from Zulia declared that his native state should have the right to select its own people for state government.


Initially, Gomez was cautious, preferring to appoint "sons of the soil" to Zulia's government. Gomez could ill afford political problems in the west. Measuring 63,100 square kilometers, with 178,388 inhabitants in 1908, Zulia was not only large in terms of sheer land mass, but also economically important. When Gomez took power, Zulia had the most substantial budget of any Venezuelan state. The largest city, Maracaibo, had a population of about 39,000 at the turn of the century.


During the First World War, the petroleum industry was just getting underway in Lake Maracaibo. Zulianos, who had long clamored for greater autonomy, now used Gomez's sympathy for Germany in World War I to justify greater independence from state control. The regime acted promptly to repress prominent citizens in Maracaibo who sought to rid themselves of military rule.


As the war in Europe degenerated into endless stalemate on the western front, Gomez chose to sympathize with Germany. "As a military man," writes Stephen Rabe in The Road To OPEC, United States Relations With Venezuela, 1919-1976, "Gomez respected Germany's military efficiency and prowess and approved of the position that its army achieved in German political life." Gomez openly displayed his allegiance by wearing a Prussian-style uniform, suppressing pro-Allied newspapers, and incarcerating journalists who were sympathetic to the allied cause. In a slap in the face to the US, Gomez kept Venezuela neutral in the war even after the US entered the conflict in 1917 on the side of the Allies and German defeat looked more likely.


Gomez's position incensed the Woodrow Wilson administration, which reminded the Venezuelan leader of his manipulation of the constitution, and even went so far as to claim that Gomez ruled through "a policy of terrorism." In late 1917, the State Department considered its options regarding the Gomez problem. Quietly, US diplomats consulted with Venezuelan exiles, who recommended covertly arming anti-Gomez exiles. Apparently, like his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson favored intervention in Venezuela. In early 1918, he queried his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, whether "this scoundrel" could be overthrown without upsetting peace in Latin America.


Unfortunately for Gomez, the deterioration in US-Venezuelan relations threatened to destabilize the political situation in Zulia. Though Gomez's sympathetic position towards Germany was likely to please the powerful German commercial colony in Maracaibo, the restive city population would shortly appeal to Wilson for help in breaking free from Gomez's control. In normal times, Gomez could ill afford to allow secessionist movements to flourish, but now with the oil companies in Zulia and revenue increasing from the industry the notion became unthinkable. In 1920 Venezuela settled the last of its external debts, and Gomez could not jeopardize a fall off in further income.


Dr. Pedro Rojas: A Dangerous Enemy


Santos Matute Gomez, the Zulia state governor, prohibited a pro-Allies demonstration in Maracaibo in late 1917. Santos Gomez has been variously described as Gomez's half-brother or the bastard son of Juan Vicente Gomez' uncle. The danger for Gomez and his associates was that pro-ally sentiment in the city might lead to U.S. intervention in Zulia. In order to head off further unrest, Gomez and his men would have to keep a watchful eye on prominent dissident voices. Of particular concern to the regime was one Dr. Pedro Rojas.


According to the US consul Emil Sauer, Rojas "is a man of thirty-five, of pure white race, of distinguished parentage, and is highly respected here." A prominent architect and manufacturer and contractor, Rojas was said to be "very popular among the residents of the city." Furthermore, Rojas was one of the few Venezuelans in Maracaibo who spoke English well. A potentially dangerous force to be reckoned with, he wrote an article for Panorama, a Maracaibo newspaper, praising the free institutions of the United States and the liberal policies of the US president. Fearing reprisals from the Zulia state secretary, Landaeta Llovera, who had warned the paper to avoid any praise for the US or President Wilson, the editor refused to publish the article. Undeterred, Rojas paid a visit to the US consul in early 1918 and proposed that the US offer nothing less than support for revolution in Maracaibo.


On behalf of the "Pro Patria Bolivare Society," Rojas wrote in a letter to the consul (in impeccable English) that the Maracaibo revolutionaries sought "to put, in the place of our present system of government which is unconstitutional and rests on military dictatorship, a wholly civilian organization headed by honorable, civilized and unmilitary men. With respect to our foreign policy, we want consistently to abide by the democratic inclinations of our national spirit, which unreservedly brings us to the side of the Allied cause. We are led to them not only by our political and social principles, but also by our economic interests and our commercial ties with the allied nations of Europe, and especially at this time and from now on in an ever higher degree, with the North American nation."


Rojas went on to complain about Juan Vicente Gomez's "apparent neutrality which hides a connivance with Germany." Rojas also complained that the government provided special protection of German interests in Venezuela. In any case, Rojas argued, the Zulia state government had been imposed on the people, and had to be overthrown through a coup d'etat. Once the state authorities were out of the picture, Zulia would rejoin other states which in turn would free themselves of tyranny, and relations with Germany would be broken.

Rojas requested airplanes, ammunition, guns and steamers. Rojas stated: "The national force of militia and police in these parts is so small that it does not reach 200, an in addition the men are suffering vexations and ill-treatment in the barracks and jail, which keeps them in a state of humiliation and disaffection." The Maracaibo businessman concluded: "P.S. In trusting you with my name, I stake my life, so this confidential statement is for you and your Government under the reservation of honor."


Rojas Appeals for US Intervention


What is striking is that not only did Rojas run the risk of contacting the US authorities, but also appeared to enjoy significant support. According to the US consul, the "revolutionaries here include a considerable number of the best people of Maracaibo, including over one-half of the State Legislature members, and people of means, some of whom are intimate friends of mine. They claim that over-whelming majority of the best people here sympathize with the revolution, though uninformed of any organized plan."


These influential citizens of Maracaibo not only supported the overthrow of Gomez, but there appeared to be little stomach in the city for ongoing caudillo rule. For prominent members of the city, revolution was bound to lead to yet more repressive rule, "unless the United States would establish a sort of protectorate, as in Cuba, to keep representative government on its feet." Faced with the specter of revolt, the US consul noted, "It appears quite certain that the local government here is looking for trouble and is nervous." The authorities, continued the consul, increased security for Santos Gomez, who was heavily guarded particularly at night.

The US consul himself was surprised by the "extraordinary secrecy" of the conspiracy. "I knew there was a good deal of opposition here to the Government," he remarked, "but this is the first intimation I have received that a definite plan of revolution was being worked out." Leaders of the proposed revolution attempted to convince the consul that their efforts would meet with success.


In the first phase of the revolt, the state legislature would denounce the election of Santos M. Gomez as having been made under pressure from the central government "and as therefore void." Later, the legislature would elect another Zulia state president and organize a government independent of the Gomez regime. "They," remarked the consul, "say that the capture of Maracaibo, perhaps without bloodshed, is practically assured, the army being almost entirely on the side of the revolutionists." However, the revolutionaries requested that the United States should prevent Venezuelan Federal warships from entering Lake Maracaibo.

The revolutionaries planned to enlist two thousand men from Maracaibo and five hundred from Coro. Despite this groundswell of support, the US consul was decidedly non-committal in his dealings with the rebels: "I could not see how the United States government could make any promises in advance, because that would be encouraging revolution." The consul refused to attend a meeting of the revolutionaries. However, he agreed to refer the matter to the State Department.


How might one explain this lack of commitment on the US side? Wilson, after launching the US into the war to supposedly make the world "safe for democracy" now failed to support political forces that wanted to rid Venezuela of dictatorship. Significantly, the State Department's Division of Latin American Affairs even covered up news of Gomez's crimes so that Americans would not call for his removal.


In seeking to explain the US response, one scholar, Judith Ewell in her book Venezuela and The United States, takes a cynical view of US foreign policymakers: "Gomez...benefited from Washington's judgment that the effort to remove him and keep peace over an outraged population would require too great a diversion of military resources." What is more, in the event that Gomez vanished from the scene, the US would have to contend with a new and unpredictable political milieu dominated by Gomez's capricious political opponents.

Without any tangible US support, massive anti-Gomez demonstrations in Caracas failed to materialize. "The influenza epidemic," writes Ewell, "Gomez's ruthless use of force, the lack of a coherent organized opposition, and the quiescence of the United States allowed Gomez to survive." In Zulia, the revolutionaries decided to postpone the revolt indefinitely when U.S. assistance was not forthcoming. In Maracaibo, Rojas was arrested and charged with plotting against the government. He was incarcerated in the military prison of San Carlos for six years.


Nevertheless, further unrest suggested that Gomez was not yet out of the woods. In early 1919, Cesar Leon, a retired merchant and writer in Maracaibo, wrote a personal appeal to President Wilson condemning the lack of democratic freedoms in Venezuela.


Oil and the "Filibustering" Conspiracy


In a rejection of Wilsonian internationalism, US voters elected Warren Harding in 1920. On the surface, a less interventionist foreign policy stood to relieve pressure on the Gomez administration. However, Harding attached singular importance to promoting the expansion of US oil interests abroad, and the State Department was riddled with officials compromised by conflicts of interest. For example, William TS Doyle, the resident manager of Shell Oil in 1919-1920, was a former head of the State Department's Division of Latin American Affairs. Jordan Stabler, another State Department official, went on to work for Gulf Oil. Francis Loomis, a powerful State Department official, later worked for Standard Oil.


In December 1921, Gomez received a shock when he was apprised of a plot for a military invasion of Venezuela. The plan was foiled when the Dutch authorities stopped a ship setting forth from Holland. The ship had been chartered to travel to Venezuela, apparently to engage in a "filibustering expedition." Another ship was prevented from setting sail from England. Both ships, the British Public Records Office stated, had been funded to the tune of $400,000 by "oil interests of the United States," which "had been pulling every possible string in order to block the development of the British Concessions which they ultimately hoped to get hold of." It's unclear whether the U.S. government had any knowledge of the plot. British reports, based on information supplied by Gomez authorities, stated that "a person named Bollorpholl of New York representing himself to be connected with State Department has handled the money." Diplomats hinted that Standard Oil, which had been disappointed with legal decisions which favored British companies, "would like to see Gomez's downfall and may have contributed to this expedition."


Apparently, oil interests had been conspiring with Venezuelan military officers, such as Gen. Carabana and Gen. Alcantara. (British officials were most likely referring to Francisco Linares Alcantara, son of the Venezuelan president of the same name, who ruled the country in 1877-78.) What is more, the Venezuelan Minister for Foreign Affairs, Esteban Gil Borges, had been "practically in the pockets" of American oil companies. "So far as I understand," remarked a British diplomat, "the filibustering expedition was arranged by the American Oil Interests with the express object of removing President Gomez and bringing Senor Esteban Gil Borges back into power." When Gomez was informed of the plot, Borges was removed from his post.


Though the plot hatched by "American oil interests" never came to fruition, the growing oil presence was a concern for Santos Gomez, the Zulia state governor. In 1923, he personally wrote Gomez, warning his chief that oil workers could be subverted by enemies of the regime. Of particular concern to Santos Gomez was the isolated oil field of Mene de Buchivacoa, located across the Zulia border in the state of Falcon. Santos Gomez worried that the area could be an easy target for enemies to the regime, who could land forces there and garner the support of oil workers before the government could respond. "Santos Matute Gomez," writes historian Sandra Flores, "deplored the absence of authority in an area of such importance and recommended the dispatch of a corps of police."


Gomez Buys Off Pedro Rojas


Having weathered many secessionist plots, the Venezuelan authorities sought to head off Zulia secession by monitoring the opposition. The new Zulia state governor, Febres Cordero, remarked to Gomez that he had received reports that the popular Pedro Rojas, now free from his jail cell at San Carlos, was using his position as president of a local athletic center for political ends. Febres Cordero stated that it was possible Rojas was trying to found an association of workers. While the governor personally doubted the veracity of the reports, he paid 1,200 bolivares to help the center acquire a new boxing ring, "with the idea", he wrote, "of putting myself in communication with the members of the club and observe them more closely."


In a long 1926 telegram, the dictator wrote Febres Cordero "to watch Dr Rojas carefully and to investigate rumors that he was actively engaged in preparing a nucleus of young men and laborers who might be used in the formation of a body of troops in the event civil trouble occurred." In a more forceful approach, Febres Cordero summoned Rojas personally, so as to speak candidly. Febres Cordero told Rojas point-blank that Gomez had received an anonymous letter, suggesting that Rojas had been instrumental in helping to form an athletic center for young men. Rojas, according to the anonymous letter, sought to become president of the organization in order to train members for military purposes.


Furthermore, Rojas was accused of having trained men employed in his factories, and "was trying by every means to increase his popularity among the Venezuelans and so far succeeded as to be elected the president of the strongest club in Maracaibo (El Club del Comercio) against most active foreign opposition." Seeking to maintain a public facade of neutrality, Febres Cordero told Rojas bluntly that he had not investigated the charges. While he personally doubted the veracity of the claims, Febres Cordero advised Rojas to meet with Gomez personally.


Rojas, no doubt concerned for his personal security, accepted Febres Cordero's advice. Traveling to the Venezuelan city of Maracay, he was granted an immediate interview with Gomez himself. One can easily imagine Rojas' growing discomfort as the dictator personally outlined the charges in more detail. Far from his native Maracaibo and now on Gomez' home ground, Rojas realized that he would have to soothe Gomez's suspicions. He reminded Gomez that he had completed a six-year jail sentence at San Carlos. He added that "he had received his lesson?he had not and did not intend to mingle in politics but wanted peace."

At this point, Gomez slyly answered that he had never believed the charges. However, in an offer of good faith, Gomez offered to award Rojas an engineering position in charge of improving the Maracaibo dock and aqueduct. No doubt feeling relieved, Rojas immediately accepted the position and returned to Maracaibo. Later, the Maracaibo native son was careful to stay in touch with Gomez, writing the dictator in April 1926 concerning preliminary work on the aqueduct. Having Rojas work personally on the project made political sense. In this way, the authorities could keep a careful watch on the respected one-time revolutionary.


Oil, Cocaine and the Lindblad Conspiracy


On the other hand Washington did not seem to pose much of a threat to the regime. The Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge officially espoused a policy of non-intervention in Latin American affairs. In late 1926, Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg personally wrote American oil companies in Venezuela, lobbying managers to restrain abuses of the native workforce.


Nevertheless, Gomez would shortly receive worrying reports suggesting that the US Navy was spying in Zulia. While it's unclear whether the US military sought to intrigue against state authorities on behalf of the oil companies, Gomez already had sufficient cause for concern. Though the dictator enjoyed a burgeoning alliance with the companies, and the spreading of prosperity from the industry allowed him to secure his position in power, Gomez had strong indications that US companies were plotting against him.


In the summer of 1926, British authorities made reference to a peculiar plot. "Information," remarked one diplomat, "has been received from a very reliable source, and should therefore be treated with the greatest secrecy, that steps are being taken to foment a revolution in Venezuela during the course of the next few months. It is stated that the funds for a revolution are being supplied by American oil companies with a view to obtaining further concessions and their agent on this side to be Captain Herold LINDBLAD of 20 Craven Hill Gardens, Lancaster Gate."


The plot, documented in cloak-and-dagger fashion by British authorities, involved a bizarre assortment of shady characters. Central to the effort was David Herold Lindblad, a former commander of the Swedish Navy and acting Norwegian Consul in Trinidad. Lindblad sought to recruit support for the conspiracy in England and Germany. The British authorities noted that Lindblad was married to an English lady in Trinidad, whose mother was related to Gen. Alcantara, of whom Lindblad himself was a close associate. Alcantara, who was resident in Trinidad, had received indications of growing dissension in the Gomez armed forces and hoped to militarily intervene in Venezuela with the idea of becoming president himself.


British authorities noted that Alcantara was born into a prominent Venezuelan family and his father was president of Venezuela. Reportedly, he had support not only in Ciudad Bolivar but also in the Orinoco districts, Margarita Island and western Venezuela "where he is in command." Alcantara was in turn linked to other sources, such as a certain individual described in cryptic manner as "D." This individual had traveled from New York to the Caribbean and was in communication with Lindblad. Apparently, "D" met with a certain "L" in New Orleans, who had agreed to supply six thousand pounds for purchasing equipment. The 6,000 pounds, noted British authorities, "was to be placed at the disposal of Lindblad for the purchase of a trawler and arms." Meanwhile, "D would seem to be an intermediary between General Alcantara and certain parties in New York (?Standard Oil?) [sic], who might be interested in financing the plot."


According to British authorities, there were indications that the plotters had approached Standard Oil, Shell, British Controlled Oilfields, "and some group in Germany," with the idea of raising financial support for Gen. Alcantara. Of these the only party which agreed to negotiate was Standard Oil, which "did not wish to appear openly in the transaction but agreed to act through an intermediary." In conversations with British Controlled Oilfields, Lindblad suggested that the company advance 10,000 pounds to charter a ship and purchase arms at Hamburg. If Gen. Alcantara came into power, British Controlled Oilfields would receive a "quid pro quo" in the form of oil concessions.


Alcantara required money to buy one thousand rifles, 30 machine guns and other arms and equipment, and to hire a 200-ton trawler in Germany to transport the weapons to Venezuela. The port of embarkation was Hamburg. According to British intelligence Lindblad was associated with a businessman in the German port city, who had a flourishing trade with South and Central America and who had smuggled cocaine and morphine. Little to his knowledge perhaps, British authorities sent an agent from Scotland Yard to be present at Lindblad's interview with British Controlled Oilfields in London. The authorities, who remarked that Venezuela had enjoyed stable government under Gomez and that British interests were well treated in the country, promptly passed word of the plot to Gomez directly through British diplomats in Caracas.


Apparently, the plotters grew concerned when it looked like British interests might work against their plans, and Lindblad's wife warned him: "Be very careful about choosing the crew. Shell might succeed in getting traitors on board by means of much bribery." When Gomez found out about the plot, Standard Oil grew alarmed and withdrew its support; the conspiracy promptly fell apart when the necessary funds did not materialize. For his part, Lindblad notified his conspirators that he would shortly return to Trinidad from Hamburg. However, word of the conspiracy alerted the authorities to the possibility that disgruntled caudillos could unite with the oil companies to create unrest. According to British authorities, "hopes are?still entertained that when matters have quietened down and President Gomez's suspicions have been allayed, through the intermediary of 'L' the Americans may again be induced to co-operate."


Gomez Consolidates Power


In the midst of this political intrigue, Gomez acted decisively to appoint a stronger and more competent state governor in Zulia, Vincencio Perez Soto. According to Gomez biographer Brian McBeth, rumors of oil companies sponsoring Zulia secession concerned Gomez and convinced the dictator of the need to appoint a stronger man as state president. What is more, as British authorities put it, "the peace enjoyed for so long by this country has been one imposed by General Gomez, now getting on in years and in uncertain health, and it is doubtful whether it will long survive him."


Additionally, if Gomez died, then "candidates to the succession will not be wanting," a British diplomat found. Most worrisome of all, "the prizes of government have increased tenfold in the last few years. The most obvious first step to successful revolution would be to gain control of the oil region with a view to extracting financial support from the oil companies." Clearly, the oil-rich Zulia region was increasingly critical. By 1928, in fact, Venezuela would become the leading world oil exporter.


In the 1920s, US economic interests in Zulia grew, with American oil companies such as Standard Oil and Gulf joining their British counterparts in the Lake Maracaibo area. Though US diplomats reported that authorities in Caracas were not overly concerned about rumors that Maracaibo would break free of central control, the US consul in Maracaibo, Alexander Sloan, alerted his superiors to widespread disaffection in the city.


Sloan said that Zulia natives as well as Maracaibo residents "do not now and have not for years felt any great affection for the central government." However, he added that Zulianos believed the economic and natural boundaries of the Maracaibo Lake united the area with the Cucuta district in Colombia and not with Caracas. Likewise, local residents argued that Cucuta was united to Maracaibo by much closer economic bonds than to other districts within Colombia.


Furthermore, reported Sloan, Maracaibo natives suspected that the central government purposefully isolated their city from the rest of the country and from the outside world for fear that an independence movement might arise there. Local residents were also incensed "that although there are many quite capable Maracaiberos [Maracaibo residents], not one has ever been placed in a position of power in the state of Zulia."


Upon assuming office, Perez Soto set about meeting with oil company officials, including Roy Merritt, a manager at Caribbean Oil Company. Writing later to Gomez, Perez Soto commented that Merritt "had opened up to me too much, showing me that he was alarmed at what he called claims and inconveniences which had been presented against his company, and saying that he sees that these matters could be leading to the same path as the Mexicans in 1911. And these phrases leave a lot to think about."


The Mysterious Mission of the USS Niagara


Meanwhile, Perez Soto was confronted with unsettling news. On July 2, 1926 the USS Niagara arrived off the coast of Zulia. The US consul requested that the sailors be allowed to celebrate the 4th of July in Venezuela. When an air officer attached to the Niagara requested permission to fly over Maracaibo in honor of the July 4th, Perez Soto grew suspicious. Reports reached the governor that the real reason for the over flight was to take aerial photographs of the region. Perez Soto barred the disembarking of the Niagara crew and refused to authorize the over-flight.


Kellogg and the State Department's policy of non-intervention notwithstanding, Perez Soto was concerned. Writing Gomez, the governor related that the US sought to station the Niagara in Venezuelan waters "as a kind of sentinel of North American interests in Venezuela." Perez Soto was concerned that the Niagara might be a bad omen of things to come, and remarked that "in this same manner the Americans placed battleships in Magdalena Bay in Baja California in 1914."


Perez Soto then employed his intelligence to obtain detailed reports concerning the activities of US marines from the Niagara on Zapara island, located in the mouth of the Maracaibo Bar. Perez Soto uncovered that the Niagara crew had mounted a wireless radio with a reach of 2,000 miles. Perez Soto was particularly concerned that powerful sectors of Maracaibo society might conspire with the United States to further Zulia secession with the aim of separating the state from the rest of Venezuela.


In an effort to lessen tensions with foreign interests, Pérez Soto assured oil company managers that he was "anxious to discuss their problems with them and to lend them any aid in his power." Perez Soto sought to assert his authority over the oil companies through diplomatic and legal means. As the US consul put it, Perez Soto and local officials were determined "that conditions such as existed in Tampico [Mexico] are not to be tolerated here, and [they] have become much stricter in enforcing discipline and obedience to the laws." In a note to Gomez, Perez Soto mused that perhaps the oil companies would put up with legality and honesty—"or maybe not, and they will try to undermine me," through their representatives in Caracas.


Redrawing the Region's Borders


Clearly, in many ways Perez Soto had been more a more forceful governor than his predecessors. For Gomez, however, the risk was that the more powerful Perez Soto became, the greater the possibility that the charismatic politician would become a rival in his own right. As Gomez consolidated power, he faced yet further military unrest, and there were ample opportunities for Perez Soto to create intrigue.


As Gomez approached old age, Perez Soto might have wondered about his own future and felt a certain degree of concern. In the first years of Perez Soto's term in office, the political situation in Venezuela looked increasingly murky, with Gomez's presidential tenure set to expire in 1929. (Under the Venezuelan constitution, Gomez was allowed to run for another seven year presidential term in 1929. But, in light of student unrest in 1928, he proclaimed he would not run as a candidate. In 1929, the constitution was revised and the position of "Commander in Chief" and President were separated. Congress elected Doctor Juan Baptista Perez as president, who had little influence. Gomez became commander in chief and continued to control real power behind the scenes.)


In July 1928 Col. Jose Maria Fossi, a trusted Gomez subordinate, turned against the dictator, taking the city of La Vela de Coro for a few hours. The military uprising, which called for revolutionaries to be reinforced by 300 Venezuelan and 90 Dominican rebels working in Curacao, was crushed by Gomez's troops.


McBeth has written that following the assault Perez Soto reorganized his small armory in order to prepare for future attack. However, Fossi later remarked that Perez Soto had approached him and offered him money in exchange for his support in fomenting a separatist movement. The ultimate aim was to form a new republic comprising the Venezuelan states of Zulia, Falcon, and the Catatumbo region of Colombia. The venture, added Fossi, would have the support of the oil companies in Lake Maracaibo.


While such reports must be treated cautiously, Colombian authorities were apparently concerned about a plot and Bogota's House of Deputies met in secret session to discuss "moves of Yankee agents in the Departments of Santander and Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist movement which, united to Zulia, would form the Republic of Zulia."

Perez Soto dismissed rumors of his involvement in Zulia secession as "treason against the Fatherland, and an immense dishonor." However, Perez Soto's credibility was further damaged when correspondence reached Gomez himself hinting at efforts to involve Perez Soto in Zulia secessionist plots. McBeth writes that "important oilmen with close connections with the State Department had enquired about the suitability of Perez Soto as President of Zulia."


What might have motivated Perez Soto to become involved? One possibility is that he was worried about the future political climate. In the event that Gomez were to fall or die in office, Perez Soto could face political vendettas or worse. Perhaps Perez Soto, having conducted successful negotiations with the oil companies in 1926, now hoped to cash in on his political capital.


The History in Light of the Current Controversy


At this point it's unclear how similar Rumbo Propio might be to earlier conspiracies. The evidence is suggestive that in the past prominent political figures allied to the oil companies and the United States sought to foment unrest in Zulia. Today, Chavez hasn't demonstrated any proof that Rumbo Propio is affiliated with Rosales or the United States.


On the other hand, the group shares Rosales' and the United States' contempt for Chavez. Rumbo Propio, led by an economist named Nestor Suarez, is an avowedly right-wing organization opposed to the government's economic policies. The group seeks to encourage "liberal capitalism" in Zulia.


The question, however, is whether Rumbo Propio is destined to become another historical footnote or to make real political problems for Chavez. When I recently traveled to Maracaibo, I put this question to Umberto Silvio Beltran, Zulia regional coordinator of the Bolivarian Circles, pro-Chavez grassroots groups organized locally throughout the country.

Beltran didn't deny the existence of real regionalist sentiment in Zulia, but downplayed the notion that the area would break away from Venezuela. "People here consider themselves Venezuelan," he said.


Nevertheless, with tensions rising in the run-up to the election, one cannot discard the possibility that the United States, or local separatists, might take advantage of the political climate to create unrest. If Chavez is right and the Bush administration is encouraging secession, this cynical American strategy will most likely anger Chavez's hardened followers in Zulia.


The president's support in Zulia state is not insignificant, and any U.S. meddling could ratchet up political conflict. According to Beltran, there are approximately 180,000 people involved in the Bolivarian Circles in Zulia. Hopefully, Zulia will not become a political battleground on Election Day and cooler heads will prevail.

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