In December 2002 I was sent to Caracas, Venezuela by NPR to cover a national strike that had brought that country’s economy to a stand-still. I was there for a month. Most days I went down to the million-people marches occupying a main highway. The Venezuelans who participated were mostly middle and upper class folks, the people with money and who owned businesses. They were angry and frightened by the leftward, “Bolivarian” turn of their president, Hugo Chavez.
They didn’t like how chummy Chavez had become with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. They didn’t like his threats to consolidate power, or a new law he’d passed allowing for the confiscation of private property under certain circumstances. But most of all they didn’t like what they called his divisive rhetoric; Chavez often blamed the country’s “elite” for Venezuela’s problems.
Pitting the poor against, well, them.
One afternoon I met some folks who invited me to their house for dinner. Turns out they were among the nation’s richest. The elite. The people who felt most threatened by and resentful of Chavez.
One of them, a young woman, picked me up at my hotel and drove me to the well-heeled neighborhood on a lush hillside above the capital.
She parked her car inside a walled compound, among other cars, and we went out to the pool behind a Spanish-style mansion.
There, over glasses of whiskey, then wine and a fabulous dinner, I listened to my hosts and their friends gripe about how difficult it was to do business under a leader who might just take your company away at any moment; about how the country was crawling with “advisers” from “communist” Cuba; about how violent crime was getting out of control.
It was hard to feel sorry for this group, seeing how rich they were. Having also visited Caracas’s slums.
But they weren’t looking for pity. They just wanted to explain their point of view, for which I was grateful. And then one man said the most interesting thing of the night.
“We created Chavez,” he said, passing the foi gras. “We spent the last half a century building bigger walls around our properties rather than trying to improve our country. He is entirely of our making.”
Ironically, Chavez used to say the exact same thing. For the greater part of the 20th century, Venezuela was an oil-rich nation run by a tiny group of oligarchs who maintained a two-party political system designed to look like democracy. But if you’d asked the country’s mostly-poor populace if they’d felt represented by that system, I’d bet my best microphone you’d have gotten a resounding, collective “No way.”
So here was this rich family, and their rich pals, now literally trapped behind their walls. And the way the night ended underscored it.
As we were leaving we discovered that the cars inside the entrance of the compound had been ransacked. The men set off on a meticulous room by room search for potential intruders, because the mother of the family was going to be staying home alone that night with her two children.
I went out to the garden and watched the roof, thinking any burglars might try to hide there. I didn’t see anything.
Later, the phone in my hotel room rang. It was the woman who’d driven me up to the mansion earlier. Turns out burglars were in the house. And they had been hiding on the roof. Oops. The mother, my host, had gone downstairs around midnight to get a glass of water and found two men in her kitchen.
She’d fled to her daughters’ room, which, in violent Caracas, doubled as a panic-room. She managed to get the steel doors shut just in time. Then she called for help.
Not the police, the woman told me over the phone. Friends and family. The men from dinner came screeching back in their four-by-fours, this time armed with semi-automatic rifles. A shoot-out ensued and one of the intruders was hit before jumping over a wall and disappearing.
No one was arrested.
“So everyone’s okay, then?” I said sleepily into the phone before realizing how dumb that must have sounded.
In Venezuela in 2002 no one was really okay. With the economy shut down by the strike, the lines for gas stretched for miles. Food supplies were running short. Just walking the streets had become a gamble. The spokesman for the Organization of American States, who was staying at my hotel along with a phalanx of diplomats, was choked unconscious just across the street by robbers who’d taken a fancy to his cellphone, then taken it.
The poor, Chavez’s poor, though finally feeling paid attention to, were as poor as ever. And the rich, aware of what they’d created, were finding solace in booze and in bandit-proof safe rooms.