A taxi ride through Caracas, Venezuela, will show you an expansive system of highways, numerous high-rises spread over miles of metropolitan jungle, streets teeming with merchants, parks filled with Simon Bolivar and running children, "Hugo Chavez is the people" banners, and numerous games of dominos taking place at every corner and with players of all ages. It is an impressive city, showing a level of infrastructure and construction unlike that of any other city we have visited -- this is an oil-rich nation. And yet a very real image of physical decline plagues its corners and avenues, the streets are the unsafest to walk that we have yet encountered, and there is a tension in the air of an immensely diverse people that live day to day in the political and economic uncertainty of its present and future. As one professor put it, "oil has been our wealth, as well as our misery."
Our first days in Caracas were stifled in terms of research due to the complete paralisis caused by Holy Week. Everything closes, from schools to universities to government offices to businesses. A significant part of our work that week came from numerous interviews with one of the most salient characteristics of Caracas: the thousands of street merchants, selling everything from bathing suits to calculators to police badges, that populate its every street. Stepping into any downtown street meant navigating through a tumult of vendors as enterprising as any capitalist I have ever heard (except perhaps with less capital). These people did not need permits, and had on their own achieved numerous extralegal arrangements for mutual protection, sidewalk rental, hours of operation, prices, and cooperation. They all had their wholesalers, they all had their methods of distribution, some were owners and others merely employers. Some were children of 17 with their own children to feed, others old rural farmers who could not sell enough coffee anymore. All of them sold their goods in the so-called informal sector, the extralegal sector, a significantly large sector (anywhere from 50 to 80% of the laboring population) in Latin America and in much of the so-called third world, a sector that awaits for the law to acknowledge its existence and permit its full development. We walked the streets from shop to shop, asking if they believed they were doing better than their parents, and if their children would do better than them. The answer to the first question was usually no, and to the second, varied from "of course," to "probably not," to "God, I hope so."
And then there was Hugo Chavez, a man not only who's speeches occupied hours and hours of each day's television programming (and who had his own show, "Hello Mr. President"), but who's military, along with their uzis, shotguns, and tanks, occupied most of the streets of Caracas. This man, carrying out a Bolivarian Revolution in the name of equality and justice, telling stories of Bolivar and quoting Alexander the Great, presented a neverending paradox. On one hand, we saw the grueling work of a government to build accessible universities, equitable schools, and advanced health centers in the (quite literally) mountains of poverty found all throughout Caracas, where homes are stacked one on top of another on the sides of hills with no apparent order; on the other hand, we saw an increasingly fascist state being born under a man who ten years ago attempted to violently take control of the government, as he reorganized and centralized the government power under one authority: him (or "the people"). And what do "the people" think? Many hate him, many love him, and even more just want to live their lives.
And yes, we were held and questioned by his military for approximately an hour. Apparently, asking to board a cargo ship headed for Panama is illegal, being there without a passaport is not problematic, and having "Hossein" as a middle name is just bad luck.
The last thing worth noting about Venezuela are, of course, the Venezuelans. They are a people that truly make up what some have called the "cosmic race": a beautiful mix of white, brown, and black that practically erases the boundaries of race. When we asked if there were any problems with racism or discrimination, we were told "we dont even really know who is of what color."
And with Venezuela ended our days on the South American continent. We now head for Costa Rica (by plane and not by cargo ship), one of the greatest success stories of Central America and all of Latin America.