Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As within, so without

Like never before in my life, this timeless adage resonates with my current string of experiences, not merely intellectually, but as a deeper, heart based understanding. When I was thrust into Caracas I quickly saw my sense of preparedness disintegrate from within me. The countless hours spent pouring over any information I could find about Venezuela and Chavez immediately became apparent as a solitary brushstroke on the vast canvas that is the modern Venezuelan condition. The real complexity and the real beauty lay hidden behind a thick and raw exterior, within the people, amidst the smoke and garbage lingering in the streets. After two months I now feel the cresting of the connection that eluded me for so long. What seemed hostile and sterile is now inviting and alive. What was once merely an old couch, some wooden boxes and an oil drum table resting haphazardly in a dirt lot beside a main road in downtown Caracas became a doorway to the infinite for three self-proclaimed social anarchists and a solitary, wandering Canadian.

I consciously lost myself that day, yielding to the intuitive impulses that sprung forth from the merging of man and environment. I became light, a drifting plastic bag at the mercy of a dusty, cosmic wind. The hours passed as I meandered up and down the side streets and alleyways, vibrant new scenes opening up before me at every new turn through this labyrinth of nameless passages. My meditation in motion was like experiencing god everywhere I looked, but more than looking, it was like seeing a true essence beyond what would have previously seemed so mundane.

Along the main boulevard in the fine arts district I became captive to a gorgeous mural adorning the 15-foot wall running parallel to the street. I casually took pictures, crouched down on the pavement or among the branches of nearby trees, capturing all the angles, all the while lost in telling myself stories about these shadow covered images. Further along, I crossed the boulevard, attracted by a large billboard of Chavez with a man selling weathered books on crumbling tables in front of it. Politics, spirituality, history, literature, he had a bit of everything. I ducked behind a small kiosk to take a picture, not wanting to attract his attention and possible disapproval. I found out later that he had noticed me long before, when I was still approaching from down the street. When I emerged his glance and curiosity awaited me. I asked if it was all right that I take photos. He didn’t mind and immediately brought me into conversation. Where are you from? What are you doing in Caracas? His name was Luis and he was kind and assertive. When I told him I was from Canada he asked if I spoke French and I said yes. One of his friends hanging out behind the billboard was from France. This weak coincidence was offered to quell any hesitancy I might have had towards his hospitality and I was invited to duck below Chavez to meet the Frenchman and his other friend. I gladly hopped over the small metal fence supporting his tables, ducked the billboard and emerged into another reality.

The billboard on one side and a cinder block wall on the other created a comfortable enclosure from the chaos and noise of the street. To call the lot dirty would be the unchecked voice of a foreigner. Caracas has a notorious dysfunction in garbage collection, and I’ve become convinced that people see litter as I see leaves in the fall, something that, by nature, will inevitably clog the drain ways, pile up on street corners and slowly decay beneath the footsteps of pedestrians. Another friend of theirs, who is also the man who has access to the lot because he rents a small street-level apartment nearby, cleans the corner that juts into the street every day, removing trash from the rustic flower bed, trying to preserve the beauty by fighting daily battles in a futile war.

A side story: I was dumbfounded on my first trip into the countryside when riding a bus through lush, pristine jungles, home to trees bearing bananas, cacao, mango, papaya and more, I asked the lady beside me if I could squeeze by her to get to the garbage bag at the front. She simply pointed to the open window beside me. I observed the other passengers for a while. Since we had just taken a pit stop most people were now finishing up their snacks, throwing the bottles and wrappers out the window. As part of Mission Che Guevara, one of the new social programs designed to promote cultural values and enhance collective identity and community spirit, volunteers dressed in red shirts comb the sides of all the main roadways in the country, removing the garbage one wrapper at a time. The filth of the roadside ditches is a sad contrast to the brilliant green canopy above and these people are trying to restore some of the balance. Angered by this pervasive mentality, I once ‘politely’ accosted a young man on a similar bus ride when he tossed a Gatorade bottle amidst a group of the volunteers, so evidently there, red against green, baking in the sun, fixing a problem at a point so far from its source. “Don’t you realize that there are people, maybe even your neighbors, out there cleaning the shit that you throw from the bus?” He shrugged his shoulders and asked me why I bothered to care. The government creates the solutions and envisions a brighter future while educating the people about the way forward…why is it taking so long? Chavez must be corrupt and mentally ill and any political path lined with socialist rhetoric and red stars is fated to suffer the same collapse as history’s other Communist failures.

This is Caracas and the lot was immaculate. Sparsely planted with small ferns and palms, with patches of green grass clinging for life to the dry dirt below. Three black dogs, gray from the dust, were lying lazily among the flowerpots. It was there that three children of god were living their lives, on a tattered couch and wooden crates encircling the oil drum table. The scene was familiar and safe, even destined, as if they had been waiting for me. Although already late in a dangerous part of town I had no reservations about opening myself up to the encounter with these would be strangers. The three friends were all in their late thirties or early forties, profoundly intellectual and highly aware of their place in this city, this country and this universe. The Frenchman was an artisan and was semi-occupied with stripping down a thick piece of bamboo into thin sheaths, which he then sanded down, heated over a flame and twisted into random circular shapes. The third man was named Carlos. He was Venezuelan and worked as a bartender at the nearby Hotel ALBA, formerly the Caracas Hilton until Chavez copied Castro and had the name changed to a more revolutionary title. The ALBA is the regional trade agreement based on Latin American sovereignty and unity and is a powerful, emerging alternative to the proposed US-led Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which would basically be NAFTA on steroids.

Luis was by far the most vocal and commanding. It took a few of his outbursts before I accustomed myself to his intensity. For the first half hour the others were mostly silent, nodding their concurrence as he railed me with his piercing and politically charged narratives about the current Venezuelan condition. At times I wanted to interject with bits of opinion or extrapolate on his commentary to show I that understood well what he was talking about, but what I thought were openings were merely pauses in his raw, street side lecture. A few girls stopped to look over the books and the metal and bamboo work so Luis walked over to help. My eyes followed him and I sat silently, staring at the back of this man, absorbing and trying to process everything he had divulged. Although he had spoken incredibly fast (I can’t think of anyone who might speak faster than an impassioned Venezuelan) I understood nearly everything he had said. It was different than most of my daily conversations in Spanish. I wasn’t screening as much and was therefore less active in processing the grammar, trying to assemble a complete understanding. Instead I just cleared my mind and opened myself to this man, his energy and his words and I believe that to some extent I was intuiting the message at a higher frequency, partially freed from my lower two levels of consciousness.

Over the next three hours, until the last metro train was about to pass by, I had similar, although more participatory conversations with the Frenchman and Carlos. Each of them also had a profound and unique outlook on our place in this world and what it means to live life fully, combining the terror of being a man with the wonder of being a man. I had hardly noticed the time slipping by when Luis reminded me that the metro would be shutting down shortly and to be careful on the long journey home. As we said our farewells, certain of another encounter, Luis offered me a book entitled “Man and Philosophy in Venezuelan History” and the Frenchman gave me a spear of bamboo, unfinished to ensure another encounter, that would be morphed into something spectacular. I packed my bag, skipped over the fence and onto the sidewalk, holding my head high as I moved briskly down the street, comfortable and aglow.

Days passed, then weeks and despite having sent an email to Carlos I hadn’t heard from any of them, until yesterday. I was walking out of the park and into the main plaza of Bellas Artes with a good friend of mine named Randolph, when at the exact moment that I started to explain one of the premises of the Celestine Prophecy (yes, I know, but please stay with me) regarding the true nature of what we call coincidences and chance encounters, I looked up and saw Luis, standing on the other edge of the plaza, talking with another man. We greeted each other warmly, in solidarity. I reminded him of my name we made the other introductions. I told him that I’ve passed by the lot a few times, but haven’t seen anybody there and asked if he was still selling his books. He breathed deeply and his brow furled inward. He told me that his close friend, the man who had access to the lot and lived in the small street-level apartment nearby, passed away last week. They haven’t been back to the lot since then. I never asked him how he felt or what they would do now, where they would go because at the time it was irrelevant and in large part, still is. Nevertheless, the questions have surfaced slightly through writing these words and pondering the endless twisting, crossing and parting movements of our paths and what that night meant to them, if it held any more meaning than any other night, as it did for me. In truth, the thoughts are likely self-aggrandizing since I was no doubt merely one passerby, one guest offered a wooden crate in a history of plenty, but for that special place, I am the last, and within that unique dance of cosmic energy, which revealed so much knowledge about our world and ourselves, tantalizing our souls to release us from our minds, we will forever be the only ones.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Diary from a Revolution

December 5, 2008.

It was my last night in Barlovento before returning to Caracas the next morning. Didi Anandasadhana and I were sitting down at the kitchen table at Centro Madre, the Ananda Marga Relief Centre where she has worked and lived for almost a decade, more than long enough to lay claim to a worthy perspective about the transformations that have taken place during Chavez’ ten year reign. It was a rare dry and quiet night for December and we snacked on dried and salted plantain chips given to me earlier that day when I stopped by the state-constructed plantain processing plant to visit Jesus, a friend of mine who works there, and the brother of Noris, Didi’s helper at Centro Madre.

After discussing how our days unfolded the conversation quickly turned to Chavez. Earlier in the evening I had been watching Canal 8, the state-run television station, which offers a non-stop barrage of polished propaganda, when during one of his many speeches Chavez boldly pronounced, “if you’re not with us, you’re with the opposition.” I turned, mouth agape, to Didi for confirmation that I aptly interpreted the translation. “Did he just say what I think he said?” I asked. She wore a half smile and shook her head slightly as if witnessing the comic behavior of a troublesome, but lovable child. “Yes, that’s Chavez.” The parallel hung heavily in my mind until that evening at the kitchen table. “I still can’t believe he said that! I mean, he’s all too aware and critical of Bush’s rhetoric, surely he realizes the connotations of such a divisive and hostile remark. If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists. Divided and hostile. This is the reality of the political climate.

The other week, I spent the better part of an evening with an upper middleclass Venezuelan woman who had called in response to my ad at the University for interest in doing a language exchange. It was Sunday and everything was closed. I suggested walking the main street nearby to find a quiet café or restaurant, but she didn’t like the neighborhood, it was too dirty and noisy. We drove instead to a faraway shopping complex in a “bedroom city” about 45 minutes above Caracas. The luxury of that option was evident right away, both as a visitor and as a resident. The “bedroom cities” accommodate the upper middle class workers who happily accept the commute (up to 2 hours during peak times) to escape the danger and noise of Caracas after dusk. It was amusement parks, gourmet food courts and name brand European clothing stores. After having spent the last two months between Caracas and Barlovento I certainly felt like I had left the country. We spoke in Spanish for the ride up and then switched to English halfway through our meal until she dropped me off in Caracas later that evening.

I hardly even had to probe to get her to rail about the political situation, she offered it, calmly and intelligently. She wanted the world to know how awful things have become in ten years, how blind and deceived are his supporters and how they are traveling on a road to hell. Most of her stories, in essence, were true, but with those facts she spun a very dark and hostile, and in my mind, unwarranted reality of the situation. First, there’s the “black list”, a database comprised of the names of people who signed the petition supporting Chavez’ removal from office a few years ago. The Constitution allows a citizens’ group to remove any elected official if they can procure 20% of the electorate body that voted him or her into office. They failed in their attempt and apparently that list has become a secret weapon to deny certain rights and privileges to citizens of the opposition. She went on. Free health care is a farce. The state-run hospitals are dirty, inefficient and lack vital equipment. I’ve heard of really long waits, token symbols of past socialist programs, but god forbid I seriously discover the realities of the rest because I don’t have any health insurance. Violence has skyrocketed precisely in response to economic mismanagement. Apparently the work force has not recovered from Nestlé’s decision to move its main office from Caracas to Bogotá.

Alas, I believe there’s some truth in all of this, but to say outright that the country is in a worse state and getting worse by the day is to speak from a very narrow social platform, is to deny humanism, is to deny the empathy and understanding that should unite a people with a common history, and is to prevent bridging the psychological and material gaps that have evolved out of that of lived experience, out of centuries of exploitative historical legacies. Classism. Yuck. How do you overlook your own role in the history and the sociopolitical structure that caused the very problems the state is now trying to remedy? The more dire the problems, the more drastic the solutions sometimes have to be.

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, is again being rallied by the big man to tweak the law restricting the president to two 6-year terms, in an effort to secure his post until 2019. This same attempt failed last year by a count of 51 to 49. I asked Didi what she thought about this. She took a slow breath while staring off to the right, reflecting. “You know,” she began, “I often wonder if I’m crazy, if I’m overlooking something obvious or if I just want him to be everything I think he is so badly that I’m unconsciously ignoring the evidence that would confirm the accusations of the opposition.” I agreed with her. Opinion everywhere, in every form, is so skewed and rife with passion that no matter how much a person receives they never feel closer to truly knowing. However, it is a lesson in listening to your heart. Didi’s heart tells her that he’s good, that he did not become a politician because it’s a lucrative career, but because he believes that it is his life’s mission to mend the deep-seeded wounds in the collective identity, the shared reality that is Venezuela. One thing is certain: without Chavez, the Bolivarian Revolution and Socialism of the 21st Century in Venezuela and possibly more of Latin America, would come crumbling down in a greedy heartbeat. Not enough time has passed and the psyche that stands in the way of true, lasting change, has yet to be effectively and honestly acknowledged, accepted and reconstructed through cooperation and compassion. Do I have a problem with unlimited terms in office? Yes and no. First thought: authoritarianism. Second thought: if people keep voting him into office then why not? The democracy is firmly intact, progressive and participatory, but within that system Chavez does manage to govern in an authoritarian manner.

Didi has worked intimately with the impoverished communities of Barlovento since the days of widespread flooding all those years ago, which was the initial reason for building the Relief Centre. As a nun, she now works closest with the women and the young girls in need of stability or a better opportunity. Noris and I were talking while washing the dishes. She’s in her early twenties, educated, and middle class for Barlovento. Her family lives relatively comfortably, but they don’t have much. The reason for the stagnation of social change, she explains, is not only due to a lack of infrastructure, access to government services and a developed economy, but more importantly to the psychology of the people.

Neglect or deny a people’s basic human rights for so long, show them through the way you govern that they really aren’t that important, tell them that their turn to prosper from the country’s oil bounty and natural splendor will just have to wait, over and over and over, and what do you expect to happen? How do you expect people to react to new opportunities? One might think eagerly of course, and some do, of course. But there’s also a peculiar undertone to the noisy yet hushed life in the streets, an invisible yarn that spins the country scene into being: the belief that this is life, and for better or worse, this is really all I can hope for. She said it with lament and I wanted to internally agree, but removed from the situation, removed from the people she loves in her family and her community they seem like noble perspectives in some ways. It is what keeps people going from day to day and enables them to fully appreciate the smallest details and be present in the moment of life. But I lament knowing that it prevents them from taking advantage of this opportunity. The crux of the Bolivarian Revolution is that people have to meet it halfway. It was born from 80% of the population and their collective experience with exploitation and neglect. It was born of the barrio and the campesino. It was born of Chavez and he is of this background, he is this demographic, he is the heart of this country. And the heart of this country, until now, has being denied participation in the development of their economy and in the running of their society. Ten, twenty percent, were born of privilege, went overseas for their education and corporate training, or assumed a position in the family business. They took office. They negotiated with foreign firms seeking more raw materials. They dominated the state-run enterprises. They were building their dream. Now the tables have turned. The new leaders, the new mayors and ministers are struggling in their quest for the obvious reasons of charting foreign territory. This is participatory and the people have to meet the process half way. I want to see this revolution succeed, not only for Venezuela and Latin America, but for the entire world, as an example to humanity that there is another way and that while deconstructing and reseeding a psyche, an economy, a nation, a people, is painful at first, this change is inevitable and will give birth to wondrous joy and prosperity.