Learning to live with chaos in Caracas
I imagine that most people in the US have heard of Venezuela. It is, after all, the world’s 5th largest oil exporter and a nice little vacation spot. You might have even heard that it is experiencing some minor political and economic problems right now. You know, nothing too serious; an antagonistic, even violent, political climate, real GDP falls of over 10%, a two-month oil sector strike, a biased media, and a president whose 4-hour television addresses call up only one word—populism.
So when I decided to take a rather startling internship opportunity at an economics magazine in Caracas, we can say that my parents were less than pleased. But faced with a summer of waiting tables in Denver, even a weekly death toll from urban violence that rivaled the US casualty tally in Iraq could not keep me away. Three months of beaches, salsa, Spanish, and economics awaited me a in a country that presented fascinating contradictions.
I still marvel at the series of events that brought me to Luisa’s apartment on the Avenida Principal de Sebucán and a little magazine office in Sabana Grande. One week I was lamenting my ineptness and stupidity, apparent by my inability to land a Goldman-Sachs summer internship following my junior year, and the next week I was on a plane to Caracas. Francisco, one of my editors, had apparently called a friend elatedly upon reading my application, “I finally found a college student who can write!”
After accepting the offer my email was flooded with magazine articles, opinion pieces, financial accounts, and instructions to read three newspapers in Spanish daily. A lot to learn in only a week. Ex-Oil Workers Denounce Nazi-like repression. Shooting at political protest in Chavez-sympathizing neighborhood. Deputies resort to physical violence in 14-hour legislative session. Sounds incredible, but these are actual headlines. I began to realize that the situation was much more complex than I had imagined, than anyone sitting and reading the New York Times in Durham can imagine. I arrived in Caracas to write about economics, but with so many other things going on, I was overwhelmed.
I watched currency controls stifle an economy still stumbling after a two-month oil strike. I stood in the middle of one the major throughways of Caracas that was blocked by protestors who decried the hypocrisy and disloyalty of a public official while the police looked on amused. I visited organic cocoa farmers on the coast of Venezuela and interviewed a former president of Pequiven, the petrochemicals arm of the state-oil company. I watched the National Assembly fall into fistfights because a deputy had insulted a lady while in session. I listened to President Chavez rant about, well, everything, apologizing for being ugly and black, but citing the continued necessity of his “Bolivarian Revolution”. I read Roy Chaderton’s speech to the Organization of American States about the blatant racism in Venezuelan society and media and looked bemused at the incredible mix of people around me.
One day over lunch Francisco asked me if I could have done anything to prepare myself. Is this country so crazy, so incomprehensible that no amount of preparation is sufficient? Is this situation even remotely fathomable without actually being here? Yes, and no, respectively. Francisco had tried to warn me; “Things are kind of crazy here.” Other journalists tried to warn me; “Do you know what you’re getting into?” I talked to friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of my mother’s; “Caracas is very dangerous. You have to be very careful. Do you know what you’re getting into? Don’t go out alone at night.”
I think of myself as an economist. It’s what I study; it’s what my degree from Duke will read come May. But for a summer, I got to play the part of a journalist in a country where high-profile media personalities are locked out of their radio stations, find bombs placed in their cars at 3am and get fired after illegally recorded, drunken, antagonistic cell phone conversations are published on the internet.
Elsa, my editor’s secretary had told me all summer that I would not be able to go back to the States after Venezuela. It’s too calm there, she told me. Everything is orderly and perfect and you will be bored. You will cry ‘Take me back to Venezuela!’ she said as she walked away from me, dabbing at her eyes.
I walked away from the offices of VenEconomy with tears in my eyes, too. I had given them three magazine articles and endless questions. They had given me the ability to analyze sources, write tips, advice on the best way to give birth, an understanding of a culture, an economy and a political system. But above all, I left with a renewed sense of confidence and identity. It may sound trite, but I really could not have chosen, or stumbled upon, a better way to spend three months.
This article was published in the Oeconophile, the newsletter of the Department of Economics at Duke University. Reprinted with permission (for once.)