I work for a live entertainment company that travels to different cities every week. It’s a great way to see the world, and I take full advantage of my days off. But when I heard we were going to Caracas, Venezuela, I felt some anxiety about working, even temporarily, in a country run by the notorious anti-American dictator Hugo Chavez.
Venezuela is one of the more beautiful places I have visited. During our day off, a few of us rented a van and, protected by three hired security escorts, headed into the mountains to visit Colonia Tovar, a German town that dates back to the 1840s. The town was charming and the mountaintop views breathtaking. Speaking of beauty, the beaches in Venezuela are beautiful with blue water that allows the beachgoer to see straight to the bottom at depths of up to 12 feet. It’s as clear as a swimming pool.
But Venezuela will not become a tourist powerhouse like Costa Rica or Panama — not soon, anyway. Despite huge revenues from oil exports, inflation is rampant. Electric power goes out regularly. Tourists do not leave their hotels without being escorted. We were not permitted to go anywhere with- out armed security guards, most of whom had been police officers before Mr. Chavez took over. They entered the private sector because they didn’t like where the government was headed.
Like Castro, Chavez has his share of supporters around the world. When I sarcastically posted on my Facebook page one of the many propaganda signs here, the nearly incredible “Your greatest investment is to pay your taxes,” I was inundated with messages and comments applauding my forward- thinking, inspirational manifesto. One of the message writers told me that she had spent some time in Venezuela and was very impressed with the government micro-credit program that helps people start their own businesses. Apparently she hasn’t actually done any business in Venezuela; otherwise, she would know that such enterprises as do start up are hit with a 56.6% tax on their profits.
The supposed good that Chavez has done reminds me of the musical “Evita,” which portrays Juan and Eva Peron handing out food and doing some good for poor people while embezzling millions and violating personal liberties. To quote a song from the play,
Now, critics claim a little of the cash has gone astray.
But that’s not the point my friend,
When the money keeps rolling out you don’t keep books; You can tell you’ve done well by the happy grateful looks. Accountants only slow things down, figures get in the way.
Back at the venue in Caracas, a red-vested government worker walked around the building and made sure that the prices on the food and merchandise we would sell at our show were those the government had permitted, ending his argument with “Chavez says.” He told me that in his country all the money technically belongs to Hugo Chavez, and we’re just borrowing it. At any time Chavez or his minions can tell you to empty your pockets and give him back his money. Imagine a country where the president or his representatives can walk up to you and say, “You have to give me all your money, because it’s mine.” (Hmmm. Maybe that’s not so hard to imagine . . .)
Everywhere I turned people told me what I could or could not do, finishing each directive with “Chavez says.” Government employees constantly invoke the name of their militant president; it’s almost like saying “God bless you” after a sneeze. Chavez’s name was even invoked for the purpose of restricting my movements in and around the build- ing. I once responded, “I don’t take my orders from Chavez, I take them from my supervisor”; to which the reply was, “We talked to your supervisor and he said to tell you what Chavez said.” It was like playing “Simon Says” around the clock, and it was not fun at all.
Government involvement is overwhelming. Last year, when my company came to Venezuela, contractual agreements between my company and the government set the prices for our merchandise at an amount that seemed reason- able. After two shows it became apparent that demand was greater than expected, and if the company did not raise prices, the supply would run out. So with the government’s consent, it raised the prices. By the end of the run, items that sell in the states for $25 were selling for $80 apiece, and the people
In Venezuela, all the money belongs to Chavez. At any time Chavez or his minions can tell you to give him back his money.
were still asking for more. This year we had negotiated to set our prices at last year’s closing prices, and we stocked accordingly. Once we arrived and were settled into the building with all our stands set up, the government changed its mind. “Chavez said” that our prices needed to be cut in half. As a result, we were not sufficiently stocked, and we were completely sold out of everything, one day early. It’s simple sup- ply and demand, but if Chavez doesn’t understand it, Chavez doesn’t say.
So agents of the state spent a lot of time scrutinizing the Americans to make sure we were not “gouging” the customers — while the locals we hired were allowed to charge what- ever they wanted for the merchandise we had to provide for them. We were forced to continue selling souvenirs for the government-mandated price of $45, with the red vests breath- ing down our necks, while the locals down the concourse could charge $50 and pocket an extra $5 with every sale.
The anti-American sentiment in the Venezuelan government is palpable. The manager of the government-run build- ing told our local security guys that she tries to do all she can to slow down our sales because she doesn’t want Venezuelan money to fund an American company. “Yankee” is a derogatory term; when people are mad at each other in traffic, they call each other Yankees. One Sunday evening when I was try- ing to move some merchandise to a vendor’s stand I was told, “Listen, Yankee, I don’t care what you have to do, Chavez says it’s illegal for you to use that dolly on the concourse during a show.” When I tried to sidestep him he blocked my way and put a hand on my chest and said, “Yankee, you’re not listening to me.” Fortunately, another company worker, a man from Puerto Rico stepped in, and kept the situation from escalating into a fight. I’m a big guy, a foot taller than most of the Venezuelans, so I don’t think it would have been me going to the hospital — but I’ve seen the hospitals in Venezuela and I can understand why Mr. Moore didn’t use Venezuela in his feature-length film, “Sicko.”
Later in the week, I needed to go outside to our storage trailers during the second act to get more merchandise for after the show, typically a big time for sales as customers leave the building. On the way up the ramp to return to the venue, I noticed that the door — the only one I could use for haul- ing merchandise — was closed. A person wearing a bright green security shirt was standing there, staring me down, and wouldn’t you know it — he happened to be the same Yankee- hater from Sunday evening. I knew I was in trouble. He said, “You’re not allowed to bring merchandise in and out of the building during the show.” I responded, “When did that rule change?” He said, “Someone on the cameras just called me and said that you’re not allowed back in until all the people at this show have left.” The second act was about to end, so I quickly asked, “Why is that?” He responded, “For security reasons.” I said, “Well, is it a good security practice to have me outside with the public milling around and thousands of dollars in merchandise outside as well, when you could just let me in now?”
I reminded myself that my friend from Puerto Rico had solved the dolly standoff by being calm. So I remained very calm. It didn’t help. “Chavez says,” Green Shirt replied with a leer. I had to sit outside the building with all of the merchandise and no protection, while customers inside the building complained that there was nothing to buy. Luckily, one of our security officers overheard what was going on and came out to help me keep an eye on over $60,000 of merchandise, while the street vendors eyed it hungrily.
I saw some amazing graffiti in Venezuela. In one case, Uncle Sam is swinging a knife. Instead of the stars on his hat there are skulls, and his arm is labeled, “CIA.” Chavez is dodging the knife and about to punch poor Uncle Sam. Another one shows a horde of demons labeled “CIA,” and Chavez is about to step on them. This is education by the state.
Billboards filled with propaganda serve to keep the people in line. Some of my favorites:
Science leads to Socialism.
With Chavez, the people are the government.
In Socialism, you do the greatest works.
Socialism, Patriotism or Death!
This may sound silly enough. But the problem is that Chavez, like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao before him, has mastered the art of propaganda. He knows how to make his propaganda look as if it were grassroots. When people think that their neighbors are going along with the powers that be — for instance, by painting pro-Chavez graffiti in their neighborhoods — then they themselves are afraid to rebel. That is why most people you meet in Venezuela are afraid to speak against Mr. Chavez and his ilk. But I would like to think that the Venezuelans will one day learn the slogan “Live free or die!”