The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Saturday, March 31, 2007


La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Saturday, 31 March 2007

One day last week Kathleen and I went over to the big, modern covered textile market in Porlamar. Basically, there were hundreds of stalls selling a lot of the same clothing. But the prices are low and it was fun to interact with the people. As usual there were lots of things to photograph, a constant being the children and adults. The Venezuelans are always so willing to be photographed, taking childish delight in seeing the digital pictures if even for a few seconds. The digital camera, which I thought might make things awkward, has actually turned out to be a great ice breaker every time.

The children in the photo are of Lebanese descent. The man with the white hair is their Tio (uncle) and the older teenager is a cousin. He in turn has a cousin living in Ottawa. It’s quite common to find that Venezuelans have relatives in the U.S.A. or Canada. (True for Ecuadorians too but with a lot of couples now too working in Europe. Remittances from these people have become important sources of overseas currency for poor Latin American countries.) Other photos are of faces around the market including the waiter at the open-air restaurant we had lunch at inside the market. Aren’t they all beautiful?

Although I do not have any exact numbers at hand, I was surprised to learn that there are such a large Middle Eastern and Asian components to Venezuelan society. Many, many grocery shops - in fact, I know of right two right here in La Guardia; one of them is directly across from us – are run by Chinese. The Chinese seem to keep very much to themselves. The Lebanese, Syrians (both Muslim and Christians) are also very active shopkeepers but much more outgoing. They also do a lot of the unofficial “banking” i.e. money-changing. Almost any “Arab” shop you go into in Porlamar or Juangriego will change money at the better, unofficial rate. Although I have not quite figured out the money flows, I am sure a lot of the tourists selling dollars or euros for bolivaros are actually somehow innocently complicit in drug-money laundering. Maybe the shopkeeper sells you “bollies” at a discount to the unofficial exchange rate (recently this has been double the official rate of $1 = Bs 2150). Then he turns around and sells it to a drug trafficker at a lower rate. The trafficker buys drugs in dollars or euros. Can this be right?

As another comment on the country, we have by the way never encountered any overt anti-Americanism here in Venezuela whatsoever even though the person you are talking to might be very pro-Chávez and very critical of American government policy. The fishermen around the village can be a little gruff at times but it is not personal. Some of them just don’t smile a lot. On the whole the Venezuelans have been delightful, cheerful and helpful where we have needed it.

Crime in Venezuela

Another conundrum: why does Venezuela not only have the highest crime rate in Latin America including the highest murder rate? How can this be? Is it demographic, i.e. is it because such a large part of the population is comprised of single men between the ages of 15 and 30 and therefore in exactly the right age for crime? Is it drug-related, i.e. are crimes being committed to feed the habit or are their narco-market wars going on? Maybe it’s related to the years of poverty that have bred callousness about violent crime. Or are the murders crimes of passion? And surely other Latin American countries have similar demographics, drug problems, cultural biases and economic disparities.

Maybe I can research this a bit and write an article on the topic.

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Friday, March 23, 2007

Vernal equinox

The vernal equinox has arrived. Just after Christmas and even into February, we used to get a light shower in the pre-dawn. La Guardia is in the shadow of some high hills about ten to twenty kilometres at the eastern end of the island, up there by Playa el Agua, the island’s best-known beach. The hill residents get quite a lot more rain than either the peripheral beaches or those of us in the rain shadow. Almost every day still, large tropical clouds build up around the mountain tops, but little of it now comes our way. We have not had a drop of rain for at least six weeks now and there won’t be any more until July or August when the second rainy season comes. Macanao is west of us and basically never gets any rain. It’s a desert even though you occasionally see a few of those tropical clouds gathered like a crown around the peaks of Macanao’s one or two 800-metre peaks. Except for a few small fishing villages, hardly anybody lives out there either.

Isla de Margarita lies slightly over 10º north of the equator so there is some small difference between the length of winter and summer days. The sun rises a little before seven o’clock in the morning now whereas, around Christmas, it was starting to come over the eastern hills a little after seven. But there’s really not much difference, is there?

After the Christmas rainy season, the local vegetation entered a modest growth spurt. Some of the small trees around started bearing flowers and we have now reached the stage of seed pods. Those magnificently huge mango trees around the village were loaded with fruit. But that seems now to be passed. Other trees and shrubs seem to be bearing fruit and little flowers almost constantly.

(Interestingly, the tropical fruit trees are largely ignored by the locals. The fishermen eat their fish and otherwise everybody goes shopping. And we have yet to see any sign whatsoever of a household garden: no vegetables or orchards. I suppose that the soil – basically beach sand around here and quite saline – is unsuitable. And I suppose the people here have never had a tradition of gardening. Venezuela, which has a lot of arable land on the mainland, still imports half of its food. Of course, most of it comes from Norteamerica. You can find Washington apples at SIGO!)

I am sure that Gustavo, the man who shows up occasionally at my door in the evening to bring me limes, mangos, coconuts and other fruits, has scavenged the fruit somewhere. Gustavo is about 40 and dirt poor. I am sure he is a heavy drug user and desperate for a little cash. He has a little girl, Ariana, 4, and he tells me he needs the money to buy “pan” (bread). Maybe he does but I always buy from him even though we now have so many limes that Kathleen complains we have no more room in the fridge. But I can’t resist buying from Gustavo so we pass limes around to Paula and Jens and anybody else we can find. Too bad the mangos seem to be over now.

To be frank, the native flora on Margarita is not really about flowers. In our part of the island it is about cacti and other desert plants. Most of the blossoms you see around town (there are no flowers outside of town) come from planted shrubs like bougainvillea (called trinitaria here) and frangipani (a Caribbean term; around here it’s called dogbane in English and plumeira, I think). After several visits to the garden centre over in Asunción, I was advised by a Canadian guy I met there, himself a garden designer, to forget flowers in the tropics and go for a variety of leaf colours and shapes when planning the plants for the patio at Casa Venamor. He also gave me the tip to forget about above-ground planters, etc, and just go for lots of potted plant: they are inexpensive and provide lots of flexibility. I have been following his advice. (See photograph.)

The locals tell us that we are now entering one of the two hottest periods of the year. At the equinox the sun is directly above the equator, which about 600 Nm south of us. In the next few weeks the sun will come to be directly overhead and daytime temperatures will rise under cloudless skies. As the sun works it way north to the Tropic of Cancer (i.e. about the level of Havana, Cuba, or Mazatlán and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico) it is no longer directly over Venezuela and the daytime temperatures cool off a bit. We go through the same cycle in the fall.

We notice that noontime temperatures are getting to feel hotter and for some reason we have been getting some rain. The locals tell us it is definitely not typical for Margarita to get any rain at all. Some days recently have remained overcast nearly all day and humid. We stay out of the heat at noon, rinse off frequently during the day under our patio shower and sometimes take a siesta. The steady NE Trade Winds that up till now have cooled our days and evenings have now disappeared and the air is much stiller. Everything now seems a little more hot and humid although, in reality, the temperatures are much the same. It just seems more tropical now.

The twenty bougainvilleas (trinitaria) that I planted along the outside wall are not doing well. We did plant an earth ball with the plants, we water them occasionally and we have even fertilized them a bit. It is a wonder that anything at all grows in that sand and it does not help that Chicken Man and his customers throw their garbage around. This litter is everywhere in Latin America and is in almost every visitor’s opinion one of the negatives. But trinitaria is a tough weed. I am hoping that the plants are just busy putting down very deep roots as the date palm in the empty lot next to the Chicken Shack has also done. So has the other tropical fruit tree in that vacant yard (locals call it “nono”, but I do not know what its English name is; it has big beautiful leaves and small ugly fruit. I attach a picture.)

Plans, plans

To be frank we are starting to get itchy feet again. We have been here for nearly five months. My writing and our internet projects absorb our time. Stepping in for Jens at the posada is fun too. We had family visitors from New Year’s until into February while Kathleen was in Germany and at present Kris and John are visiting us from Portland for ten days. In February, Kris’s mother, Carol, will also be here for a week. She is one of the owners of the house and we are looking forward to meeting her. All our other visitors from Canada, the U.S.A. and Europe now seemed to have pooped out, all for quite good reasons. But we are disappointed anyway.

So now, with only six to eight weeks left to go on Margarita, we start pitching our thoughts forward. When we came here we thought we would spend the time here fattening the cruising kitty including setting aside money for a new suit of sails before we head for the South Pacific. That meant putting off the crossing until the spring of 2008 instead of sailing from Ecuador this spring, i.e. in a month or two. Then we wondered if we could perhaps spend six months in Ecuador again and sail to French Polynesia in September. The idea would be to spend six months there before continuing along on the “Coconut Milk Run” to New Zealand. By cruising French Polynesia for a few months in the off season we would have more time the following season to investigate other archipelagos along the Coconut Milk Run to Tonga and then New Zealand. We wouldn’t be so rushed.

The French, as we understand it, currently allow non-European vessels six months (European boats can stay for a year). Of course, although The Marquesas are only on the northern fringe of the tropical storm belt (sort of like the Sea of Cortés) there is always some risk of a tropical storm there. Gambier Island, farther south near the Tropic of Capricorn and largely out of the hurricane zone, is another alternative: it’s about 750 Nm south from the Marquesas. Unfortunately, you are still in French Polynesia and, after six months there over the stormy season, we would have no time left under our French cruising permit to visit the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, the Society Islands, Tahiti, etc. That would be a great pity.

On top of all this, Kathleen has been invited to teach conducting at the conservatory of the Universitad de dos Hemisferos, part of the Catholic University of Ecuador in Quito, the largest liberal arts institution in Ecuador. We are not at all yet sure what the dates will be or what the time commitment will turn into. This is all still up in the air at present and all has to be negotiated.

So, maybe we shall stay here in Venezuela until mid-May so we can re-enter Ecuador having been gone six months, stay there six months, find something else to do for the six months from autumn 2007 till Easter 2008 and then take off for the Marquesas in the spring of that year. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

This picture was taken at San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Monday, March 19, 2007

By Ronald J. Bird©


In a previous article it was noted that a “Pink Tide” of nationalistic left-wing governments is now a well-established political feature in Latin America. Presidents Lula de Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua are only the most notable. Moderate leaders in other countries of South and Central America as well the Caribbean are monitoring developments carefully; they are pushed on the one hand to do something about poverty and corruption at home, but constrained on the other hand by their country’s dependence upon international development loans or foreign aid from the First World. Even the neo-liberal governments of America’s strongest allies in Latin America, Mexico and Colombia, must be wondering which way and for how long the wind will blow.

The poor and dispossessed including indigenous peoples have learned to use the levers of democratic power and to find leaders to articulate their demands. The poor who came so close to achieving power in Mexico recently know that those Latin American countries that now have progressive administrations have achieved them, not by armed revolution, but through the ballot box. And, while nearly all Latin Americans nurse respect for Fidel Castro for what he has done to better his own people and because of his decades-long defiance of American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba’s brand of Stalinist socialism is regarded as undemocratic, dictatorial and claustrophobic.

John Ralston Saul in a March 2004 Harper´s article opined that perhaps the era of globalisation has now come to an end. Globalisation is no longer so unquestioningly accepted to be either a self-fulfilling prophecy or a self-regulating phenomenon. We can note that some successful economies, chief amongst them perhaps China and the Asian Tigers, have never really been true believers anyway; they flourish on exports but keep tight control of their currencies and central banks and protect their domestic markets. Exports, yes. Open borders, no.

Now, dismayed by the twenty-five-year failure of globalisation to deliver the promised material goods in return for which developing countries have permitted the IMF Jesuits of the financial world to restructure both their economies and their societies, many nation-states are now taking back control. And if this is true anywhere, it is true in spades for Latin America.

After the Asian Tigers, indeed, Latin America is now one of the only regions in the world that appears to offer some serious alternative to a neo-liberal, globalised, free-trading world under the aegis of the United States in particular and the First World generally. In addition, America and her First World henchmen have lost moral leadership: they have now been exposed worldwide as naked aggressors (let us not forget here to include, in the case of Iraq, countries like Britain, Spain, Italy, Denmark, The Netherlands and Australia, and, in the case of Afghanistan, even Germany and Canada), As a practical matter, on the other hand, for Latin America that means that the hemispheric hegemon is now distracted and bleeding on far-away battlefields. The coast may at last be clear.

The key reason, however, why American influence in Latin America has waned is because the First World’s credit and aid cartel has been shattered. Living hand to mouth from development loans and aid, Latin America has been forced until now to bend the knee at the neo-liberal altar. This obeisance is now over. Venezuela, with currently over $36 billion in reserves, is ready, willing and able to act as a lender of last resort for its Latin neighbours. It has extended helping hands in troubled financial times to Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba and to the Caribbean. Other countries now know where to go to find a generous and uncomplicated friend.

So, Venezuela is currently key to understanding the “Pink Tide”. But no assessment of Venezuela can be made without studying its president, Hugo Chávez.

Chávez, now 53, has just recently (December 2006) been re-elected president of Venezuela by another landslide. The election was fair, attested to by the OAS, the E.U. and by Jimmy Carter. So were all Chávez’s other elections: probably no other politician has been democratically elected, ratified and confirmed as many times as Hugo Chávez.

He comes from a poor rural family and was a career soldier who rose in the Venezuelan Army to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Imbued with the liberation ideas of the 60s and 70s, he attempted a military coup in 1992 to turn out one more elitist and corrupt Venezuelan government. The coup was bungled but his name became a banner. He was incarcerated for his role in the coup but was released early after two years. He returned to the political fray. By 1999 he had been overwhelmingly elected President of Venezuela with a mandate to clean up the corruption and do something for the huge mass of poor citizens both in the country and in the barrios of the major cities.

As he promised in his first election campaign, Chávez immediately started the wheels turning to convene a popularly elected assembly to rewrite the constitution. Completed, it was overwhelmingly ratified in a referendum. Amongst other things, it now allowed any president to run twice consecutively and the term of office to be in the future six years rather than five. Chávez is now in his second term under the new constitution. The legislative branch was restructured to a unicameral National Assembly on the basis of representation by population and a guaranteed number of seats for indigenous peoples. The constitution also gave the president the power to rule by decree if agreed by the National Assembly. Clearly presidential power had now increased though it is still limited by a separate legislature, a separate judiciary, a separate prosecuting attorney and even a separate electoral officer.

Already strong, Chávez’s voter support has increased steadily since 1999. In the short-lived reactionary coup against him in 2002, he was seen by the voters to have been the victim of machinations by the old Venezuelan elites who were aided and abetted, as it has now been documented, by Washington. The media, for example, dominated in Venezuela as in America by fat cats, declared Chávez totally anathema. Not enough that he is a jumped-up mestizo (mixed white, black and Amerindian blood), he is a left-wing reformer determined to undermine the privileges of the heretofore rich and powerful.

TV in Venezuela is almost without exception totally over the top in its opposition to Chávez: libel and slander are more the rule than the exception. In 2002, the media moguls called for a coup that nearly succeeded with the help of a few conservative army officers. When it failed, the media then initiated a recall referendum under the provisions of the new constitution. Chávez turned it into a popular referendum on his progressive economic and social policies and came out a clear winner. Then the old management of the national oil industry locked out their workers for three months in order to bring Chávez’s government to its financial knees. This too failed. Chávez instead turned out the old managers, staffed PdV (Petroleos de Venezuela) with more loyal managers and took the opportunity to replace the Old Guard army generals with sympathetic younger officers willing to bend to civilian authority.

While stickhandling through this, Chávez was simultaneously also beginning to deliver on his campaign promises. It was clear to everybody in the country that the old bureaucracy was riddled with corruption. At the very minimum, Yesterday’s Men were not going to be helpful. Chávez very early on, therefore, began to bypass them. He set up a series of Misiones bolivarianos (Bolivarian Missions) each focussed on a specific problem:
§ Portions of the Venezuelan population were actually hungry and malnourished: Chávez began to get subsidised basic foodstuffs to them.
§ Many were living in hovels: Chávez initiated a huge public housing campaign, which is still going on.
§ The nation’s poor were suffering from a lack of medical attention including pre- and post-natal care: Chávez made free healthcare a constitutional right for everyone.
§ Illiteracy was widespread: Chávez started an emergency programme to teach people to read and write as quickly as possible. (The government claims 1.5 million more adults are now literate though this is difficult to confirm.)
§ Even today many children cannot normally afford to attend school: Chávez re-organised the curriculum, made primary, secondary and tertiary education totally free and offered financial support to poor families for school uniforms and books. (The number of children in school jumped dramatically within only a few years. The baby boom accounts for a part of this increase but also illustrates the urgent need to get people educated.)
§ 5 million voters, mainly the urban and rural poor, remained out of the political process: Chávez initiated a voter registration drive to get every man and woman aged 18 and above on the rolls. (The number of registered voters has increased over Chávez’s time from 11 million to now over 16 million in a country of about 26 million.)
§ Local economic decisions were normally made by corrupt officials acting as gatekeepers: Chávez has empowered local cooperatives to draw up measures for their communities and provided them with money to implement them.
§ 75% of agricultural land is held by 5% of the population, much of the land unused: Chávez has instituted a land reform to put the unused land into the hands of landless peasants.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that Chávez’s election results show that he is even more popular now than when he was first elected in 1999. The poor and disenfranchised can now vote. They now believe that Chávez is the only Venezuelan politician who can, has and will do something practical in their interests. In the last presidential election Chávez received 63% of the popular vote with 75% of the electorate showing up to vote. Instead of calling the result fraudulent, his neo-liberal opponents this time at last publicly conceded defeat in what had been attested to as a fair election.

International relations

Chávez’s hero is Simón Bolívar, the early nineteenth-century “Liberador” of South America. Bolívar, a liberal, led the fight for independence in South America. He was Venezuelan but dreamt of a democratic union of the diverse Spanish colonies in the north of South America, i.e. Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. He called it Gran Colombia.

Although he has rejected First World-led globalisation, Chávez’s political horizon is by no means limited to his native country. Unlike even the other New Dealers in the hemisphere, he has a much broader vision. He has also taken a striking leadership role. Like Bolívar before him (Chávez has changed the name of Venezuela symbolically to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) Chávez wants to see the countries of South America united and including also possibly those of Central America and the Caribbean. He preaches Gran Columbia at every opportunity.

And he has the money to do it. Venezuelan oil money makes it possible for friendly countries to defy the IMF and the U.S.A. Once they realise they will not be crushed by such defiance, the leaders of neighbouring countries have become more willing to join in initiatives that attempt to return power to the region. Venezuela has actively helped Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador and many English-speaking countries in the Caribbean, not to mention Cuba which was left destitute after being abandoned by the Russians.

Several wide-reaching agreements already exist that could be the skeleton of a new union of Latin America. One is MERCOSUR, the Common Market of the South, which currently includes Argentina and Brazil, large and partially industrialised, as well as Uruguay and Paraguay, small and underdeveloped. Venezuela joined somewhat later and is bringing new life to MERCOSUR. Others, like Ecuador and Bolivia, have applied to join under their new left-wing and pro-Chávez leadership. Despite stresses within MERCOSUR, there is a bustling sense that something is happening and top-level working visits abound amongst the members. A second political block is ALBA, Chávez’s own Bolivarian alternative which so far includes also Cuba. Finally there is the Banco del Sur, the Bank of the South, which is designed to replace the development aid that comes with so many strings attached from the American-dominated World Bank, IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank. Scoffers there are aplenty. But all of the above agreements are conceptually more advanced than, say, the European Coal and Steel Union which launched what has now become the 27-nation European Union.

Money talks and Venezuela has lots of it. There are five major hydrocarbon producers in Latin America. Ecuador and Bolivia, two recent Chavez-like additions to the Pink Tide, are just going through their own left-wing rebirths, rewriting constitutions, creating their New Deal implementation structures, renegotiating royalty agreements with Big Oil and restructuring their onerous international debt. Eventually, however, they too should have surplus cash. Should Mexico and Colombia join the Pink Tide (this is perhaps not very likely at present in Colombia, but the last federal election in Mexico on the other hand was a near-run thing) there would be plenty of resources. If political and economic integration continues in Latin America, it will mean much larger consumer markets for economic growth even without access to North America, Europe and Japan, access, by the way, that has been repeatedly promised and just as frequently thwarted.

The big fly in the ointment of course is the United States of America. Washington has always regarded Latin America as its private backyard. Because the countries there have always been so poor, because the political masters there have always been supported by and are supportive of the U.S.A., it is now all the more obvious that Washington is losing its grip over Latin America. It is all the more understandable when one realises that Republican-Party Latin American policy is made by and for exile Cubans in the critical swing state of Florida. Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, successive Undersecretaries of State for the region, were highly objectionable policy-makers for the region. John Negroponte, another Bush tough hombre who was implicated in channelling money to death squads while he was U.S. Ambassador to Honduras under Reagan, has just been made Deputy Secretary of State possibly with the task of getting the backyard back under control. He is unlikely to do anything positive to improve relations between America and Latin America. In the case of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, expect trouble.

How autocratic is Chávez?

The criticism both in Venezuela and overseas is that Chávez is a dictator intent only upon plundering the rights and liberties and wealth of Venezuelans. Is there any truth to this?

Clearly Chávez is immensely popular and has been popularly elected or confirmed over and over again in fair elections and referendums. Not all republics can claim this about their leaders. He has set up parallel government bureaucracies to deliver the goods rapidly to the poor and needy who elected him. It has meant of course bypassing the frequently corrupt and foot-dragging existing institutions dominated by his enemies. Delivering the goods, of course, gets him the votes, a novel concept possibly worth emulating in other democracies. The armed forces and the management of PdV are now also loyal. (Chávez’s opponents cry foul. But surely no democrat would want the army or a corporation to be the centre of opposition in a republic.)

More critically, however, Chávez packed the Supreme Court with a number of sympathetic judges in order to prevent some of his more popular measures from being locked up in the courts. Picking sympathetic judges or packing parliamentary bodies is not unknown in other democracies so perhaps one should be careful with criticism. But it is also not something one should welcome.

That leaves the newspapers and television. They are almost without exception not just critical, they are libellous and slanderous and completely over-the-top when it comes to Chávez, even going so far as seditiously to connive at the illegal overthrow of the duly elected government. Nevertheless, although he had media-intimidating laws placed on the books for slander and libel, Chávez does little to interfere with them notwithstanding some reports that he sends people around to intimidate critical journalists. “If the dogs are barking it just shows we are working,” he says, quoting Cervantes. (See: and
More famously, he has also recently announced to media furore (see: and the government would not be renewing the public-broadcasting licence for RCTV, by far the most rabid anti-Chávez television station and the station that was actually intimately involved with organising and initiating the violent coup d’etat against Chávez. RCTV in fact falsified news and events and created fictitious newsreel footage to manipulate viewers into the streets. You can’t have press freedom, surely, without at least some modicum of responsibility! It is hard to find sympathy for the likes of RCTV, therefore. Its cable and satellite TV broadcasting will in any case remain unaffected. The non-renewal issue does, however, underline the fact that, in many, many areas of Venezuelan life, there is still no serious due process and decisions can be made somewhat arbitrarily. This is balanced at present by Chávez’s reticence to interfere with the media, his unassailable popularity even without media support and his personal integrity.

It is also questionable as to whether the country can or should have two parallel government bureaucracies. At some point Chávez will have to decide whether to fold the Misiones into the regular bureaucracy or develop the Misiones to replace the old bureaucracy.

Chávez will have been el Presidente for thirteen years when his term expires in 2013. Twice the National Assembly has granted him the power for limited periods of time to govern by decree. Early on in Chávez’s period it might have been necessary since there were so many powerful elements arrayed against him and he could justify ruling by fiat because of his enormous popular mandate. But this time, following his latest inauguration in January 2007, he asked for and received it again for 18 months on a show of hands by the completely Chavista Assembly (the opposition boycotted the last assembly elections). Chávez wants the ability to rule by decree so he can negotiate his promised “nationalisation” of several public utilities, the “takeover” of Verizon’s 28.5% of CANTV, the largest telephone company, as well as a make-over of the Central Bank essentially into a government department.

The words “nationalisation” and “takeover”, of course, are hot-button words. Note however, first, that the public utilities and telephone companies were “privatised” out of public ownership in the past as part of the IMF Structural Adjustment Agreement (SAA) with Venezuela. Their ownership passed into foreign hands. Some criticise that a lot of money also stuck to the wrong fingers at that time.

Second, Chávez has so far also paid fair market value to the shareholders as attested to in several cases by the foreign managers of the companies themselves.

Third, as in Argentina, having certain critical components of the economy under government control makes it possible for the government to deal with financial problems such as inflation much more easily. Argentina, for example, was able to develop an incomes policy in part because it could prevent utility prices from driving up inflation. It was also able to manage exchange rates during the recovery period which it could not do as long as its central bank was independent and as long as the SAA insisted upon independence.

All of Chávez’s calculations must by the nature of Venezuela’s situation be based upon future revenues from oil. For that reason, fourth, it is imperative that the government be in control of PdV and the Central Bank, where the currency reserves lie. Despite NAFTA, for example, Mexico retains government control of Petromex for exactly the same reason. One could argue that it is not necessary to interfere with the Central Bank. But it sits on the $36 billion in reserves of which not more than probably half is actually necessary to back up the national currency. The rest can be put to better use along with PdV’s profits for the good of the country.

The question of course is how effective can a newly organised and government-dominated “Central Bank” be in controlling inflation. This question should not be trivialised since Chávez’s programmes such as emergency make-work efforts, the construction of mass housing, highways, electrification, water and sewerage schemes, expanded schools and medical facilities are all currently having an enormous Keynesian impact on the economy. Venezuela is booming but inflation is currently nearly 20 percent.

Will Chávez’s programme work?

At home the government is totally revamping the social and economic fabric of the country. It is not only pouring money directly and rapidly into the more urgently-needed areas (nutrition, free healthcare, free education, low-cost housing), it is also beginning to make long-term adjustments to benefit a broader public. Chávez is, for example, switching government income to fairer progressive income and inheritance taxes while at the same time reducing the relatively high sales taxes that impact the poor disproportionately. Sales taxes, indeed, have just recently been nearly halved and are eventually to be eliminated altogether. This is the polar opposite, let it be noted, of trends in Canada, Europe and the U.S.A. The results in those countries have been to enrich the already wealthy, to expand the ranks of the poor and to squeeze the middle class.

It goes without saying that Chávez’s tax policies offend against IMF orthodoxies. That said, however, IMF’s voice is no longer listened to here. Heavy state involvement has after all worked reasonably well in other capitalist countries: the building of transcontinental railways, the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Interstate Highway System come immediately to mind. Whatever the economic risks, who is to gainsay that a mixed economy cannot in the future be a perfectly acceptable structure for the Venezuelan economy? Chávez is simply accepting the logic of his programmes for the poor and accepting the priority of full employment and economic development over the control of inflation.

Critical long-term issues

There are, however, two very critical long-term issues, one economic with social implications, the other political. The first has to do with being a rich oil country. Venezuela sits on vast amounts of oil yet to be developed. The Orinoco tar sands are said to be almost limitless. Now that Venezuela refuses any longer merely to give away its natural resources in return for bribes for the select and bennies for the few, there is going to be plenty of lolly. Chávez’s government budgets are currently all conservatively based upon an oil price of $29/barrel. To develop the oil sands requires market prices for oil to be kept at a minimum of $30/barrel. Venezuela, indeed, wants OPEC, of which it is a member, to keep oil at $60/barrel. It is currently fluctuating at above $50/barrel.

Given so much cash coming towards them, perhaps after the schools and the roads and the housing issues have all been dealt with, Venezuelan citizens, if their population boom can be contained, could simply start cashing oil-dividend cheques. That’s, after all, what the oil Emirates do. It’s what Albertans do in part as well. But after that, should you import peons from the Philippines, Palestine, Indonesia and Pakistan to do the grunge work for you? Perhaps young Venezuelans will become as frustrated as young people in the oil Emirates. What’s the use of a great education when there is no hope of an interesting job in a country whose only industry is low labour-intensity oil pumping. Alberta, take note.

At present, long-term economic development is almost beyond the technical capabilities of the Venezuelan government. The bureaucratic skill is not there. On a positive note, though, whereas Venezuela is at present too much a hewer of wood and drawer of water and its population of around 26 million too small to justify large-scale manufacturing, in a Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), there would be a much bigger consumer population. The five current MERCOSUR countries alone represent 65% of South America’s population (approx. 372 million) and 75% of its combined GNP. This would provide a better balance between industry and resource economies. Brazil and Argentina are already industrialised countries but need energy. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia can supply it. Free movement of labour as in the E.U. would provide some point to a good education.

The second long-term issue is one of political maturity. There is a long Caudillo tradition in Latin America, i.e. a strong leader perhaps doing good things for the broad mass of the people. This is unhealthy for democracy for several reasons, not least because the Caudillo decides what is good for the people, because sycophants establish insider positions, because the system very quickly becomes corrupt, and because democratic succession becomes very dodgy. In Venezuela at present, the electoral winner takes all, becomes nearly all-powerful. Election losers are marginalized altogether until the next election. This is not a healthy state. Dissenting voices need to be heard at all times. There needs to be a responsible shadow government committed to legitimate government. At the same time, the opposition needs to prove itself far more responsible than it has in Venezuela to date.

Chávez is by all accounts an honest and intelligent man. Unfortunately, he alone is currently also probably the only person in all of Venezuela who can drive the New Deal process forward. Without him Venezuela is too likely to fall back into its old ways. Chávez will undoubtedly be asked to become president for life. For the good of the country, therefore, there needs to be an active but fair political opposition, i.e., a loyal opposition, a process for orderly succession and alternate candidates.

Too much now turns on one person. At present, Venezuela is clearly a “one-bullet country”, i.e., one bullet can change everything. Chávez’s enemies both at home and in Washington will no doubt have taken note of this fact.

A shortened version of this article appeared in INDEPENDENT VOICE. Visit

About the author. Ronald Bird, a Canadian, lived as an international banker in Europe for over thirty years. Currently in Ecuador and Venezuela, he and his wife live aboard a wooden sailboat. His blogsite is

Friday, March 09, 2007


(The following article has just been published at

As with so much else, our views on Latin America come pre-digested by the American media. We hardly recognise the spin. Indeed, our own new masters seem to have blown in on a cold wind from the West with the quaint notion that Ottawa is an important northern suburb of D.C.
It would perhaps normally not matter a jot to us what is happening in Latin America. Most of us, if we are honest, can hardly arrange even the bigger countries on a blank map. Our image of the thirteen countries in South and the six in Central America is anyway that they are far away, poor, dirty, chaotic, corrupt, priest and dictator-ridden.

On our own slippery slope into the American stew-pot, we note perhaps distant theatre-thunder from Venezuela or reports that another country has gone pro-Castro. Donald Rumsfeld, that great democratic Liberator of our time, now alas pondering his knowns and unkowns somewhere in retirement, famously likened Hugo Chávez to Adolf Hitler. “El Presidente” for his part called George W. Bush “The Devil”. Is there anything going on down there but free trade in insults?

There remains to be seen if there is a hidden sermon for Canadians in the now well-established trends in Latin America.

Democracy and the Washington Consensus

The good news about Latin America is that democracy has put down deep roots over the past generation in most of Latin America.

Nearly a generation ago, the privileged upper and middle-classes were the first to take over both the reins of government and control over the nation’s wealth, still to the exclusion of course of the vast majority of citizens including many indigenous peoples who, nominally enfranchised, have remained to this day largely poor, malnourished and uneducated.

In addition to promoting democracy (for themselves, at least), these elites advanced what has become the standard neo-liberal agenda (sometimes also called the “Washington Consensus”). It called ideally for: reduced “interference” by government in the economic and social life of the country (government to focus on combating inflation rather than promoting full employment); unregulated “free” markets at home to promote entrepreneurial creativity which would create jobs for exploding populations; lower taxes on income and wealth to reward successful entrepreneurs, on the one hand, which in turn would to “trickle down” to the supposedly less creative while, on the other hand, but simultaneously also hampering the state’s ability to interfere with business; free trade and globalisation internationally; freely convertible currencies; balanced budgets; removal of government-sponsored social safety nets. The grand prize was to be access to the rich markets of Norteamerica, Japan and Europa.

Not surprisingly since they have both the money to lend as well as the purchasing power, the U.S.A. and to a lesser degree the Europeans have dominated international institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Latin-American governments hoping to access First-World development aid or loans must first sign written Structural Adjustment Agreements with the IMF. No agreement, no money.

Twenty-five years of failure

The unvarnished truth is that twenty-five years of missionary zeal on behalf of the Washington Consensus has been a disastrous flop throughout Latin American. The countries themselves and their citizens are far worse off now than they were a generation ago.

One comes to this glaring conclusion whether the country is a struggling but fairly modern economy like Brazil, Argentina or Mexico, or a hewer of wood and drawer of water like Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru or Columbia with their huge natural resources. The former have been shut out of real access to First-World markets even after major IMF-driven overhauls of their economies. Closely allied with the powerful in Washington, New York, London, Frankfurt and Paris, local string-pullers in resource-rich Latin-American countries have meanwhile over the years permitted the patrimony of all to be plundered in exchange for personal bribes to the influential and wealth for a relatively small class at home. It fattened pocketbooks in the First World too: adjusting the thermostat on your oil-central heating of an evening this winter, pause therefore for a moment of silent thanks that their selfishness and their greed have so generously contributed to our own well-being.

Revolt of the masses

Thriving mass democracy therefore, on one hand, and failing economies on the other. To the horror of the well-to-do, democratic leadership has been passing steadily like an ever-expanding ripple across the hemisphere to the impoverished masses, a “Pink Tide”, if you will, of populist, New-Deal administrations. They have certainly learned how to work the system. Indigenous peoples too, treated like untouchables in the past and stunted economically, politically and physically, have now an important hand in the making of leftist governments in several countries. As voter registration offices opened in Ecuador last fall for the presidential elections, lines of indígena women formed all around the block. By striking contrast, to the U.S.A., moreover, recent elections in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Nicaragua, have been certified as fair and above-board.

Wherever in Latin America the impoverished were ostracised from power till now it is frequently because there was too little democracy and not too much. Old oligarchies still kept a strangle-hold on the process. Wherever pro-American, neo-liberal governments retain power in Latin America - Mexico and Columbia come to mind -, the national elections in those countries are also widely believed to be fraudulent and manipulated. How long, therefore, before even those two large and resource-rich countries tire of neo-liberal shibboleths and send their elites packing?

The accession by leftists to legitimate power in Latin America, moreover, contrasts sharply with the two recent questionably-legitimate presidential elections in the Grand Old Republic. Latin America is therefore disinclined to be hectored about democracy by the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Thus, the new leaders (call them populists, progressives, leftists, New Dealers - whatever), brought to power by the poor, hungry, uneducated and ostracised, in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Peru, arrive with the burden and the promise to eradicate poverty, ignorance and hunger amongst their constituents. Will countries like Mexico soon march to the same drummer?

Where’s the lolly?

But where are they to get the money? Tighter national control of the country’s natural resources is the obvious answer. This applies especially to hydrocarbons but includes other valuable minerals such as bauxite and copper.

To date, these resources have largely been plundered free of charge by and for the benefit of the First World, its consumers and its businesses. Left-leaning governments in Latin America come to this issue therefore with a strong sense of past injustices and resent their own elites for selling them out.

First Venezuela raised royalties and taxes on oil from nearly nothing to now 33% and will be seeking majority stakes in the vast new Orinoco tar-sands. Bolivia has also begun nationalising natural resources, though not its coca, as well as raising taxes and royalties to international levels. Expect Ecuador to follow suit under its moderately-leftist new president, economist Rafael Correa.

Big Oil and Big Minerals will surely wring their hands in mock despair but they have already begun to sign. No Canadian should find anything shocking in state ownership of natural resources. Until a conservative government frittered it away into the hands of foreigners, did not the people of Saskatchewan actually own and operate their huge deposits of potash for the benefit themselves? And, if provincial governments do not actually own oil companies outright, the future prosperity, after all, of Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia – perhaps even Canada as a whole - will depend largely perhaps even completely upon the tax and royalty intake from Big Oil.

Manage your cash flow

The other major source of cash flow, if not of actual income, lies in “renegotiating” the punishing loads of international debt with which past governments have saddled both current economic development and future generations yet unborn. Poorer countries like Ecuador might hope for cancellation of some debt under international agreements. Countries like Brazil and Argentina are unlikely to get in on that deal.

Argentina’s left-leaning President Kirchner may perhaps therefore have altogether changed the course of Latin-American and financial history when he defied the international financial system and defaulted on a loan instalment, the largest such default in history. He also took control of the currency, regulated some key prices, developed an incomes policy and in general desecrated the holy alter of international financial orthodoxy.

The IMF was horrified, of course, its high priests and acolytes holding their breaths and averting their eyes. Result? Nada! More pertinently, Argentina’s economy has been flourishing ever since.

How do they get away with it?

Latin American governments are now able to strike off in new political, economic and social directions for two reasons. The most important is that the lending and aid cartel so long dominated by the U.S. and E.U, has now been broken.

This has occurred because oil-rich Venezuela under Hugo Chávez with over $36 billion in currency reserves is ready, willing and able to function as a lender of last resort. Four other South American countries are also hydrocarbon producers though not perhaps yet so ready or willing to share. Argentina was able to ignore IMF objections because Chávez offered his support. The same held true for Ecuador and Bolivia, not to mention Cuba, which until Chávez came along, was on its last pins following abandonment by Russia.

Moreover, there are other lenders and investors besides Venezuela in the wings. China, watching its foreign-currency reserves of approximately $800 billion dwindle in value as the dollar shrinks, has already established itself in South America with trade-related investments and raw-material and energy contracts. Venezuelan bonds are a good deal right now.

Socialism for the 21st Century

Exactly what will this Latin “New Deal” - in some countries called “Socialism for the 21st Century”- actually consist of going forward? The old Stalinist “real socialism” is not well thought of and is felt to be unsuitable for the Latin temperament (though it is found in Cuba, which is widely admired in Latin America for the care of its people and resistance to America hegemony). As once practised in Europe and Cuba, however, “real socialism” would be “Socialism for the Last Century”. It is anyway inconsistent with democracy.

New-Deal countries are already moving to some sort of a mixed economy (government and private); the details are not yet clear – probably even to the new, leftist leaders themselves. Expect experimentation, perhaps also with the old-fashioned import-substitution model. There is theoretical agreement amongst the countries that a much larger regional common market is necessary and there are already formal structures in place like Mercosur (Common Market of the South)

Breaking chains

The Latin version of the New Deal has come increasingly to include an open declaration of independence from American hegemony. Call it anti-imperialism, call it anti-colonialism but accept that it exists. The resentment of American domination is historic and deep amongst the newly enfranchised voters if not their economic and social betters. All Latin Americans remember to well the havoc wreaked in recent memory by the U.S.A. in places like Nicaragua or Guatemala (labelled “genocide” by the U.N.), the decades-long humiliation of Cuba, the interference in internal affairs. And not only in this hemisphere! They see the blatant greed and naked aggression of the U.S.A. in the Middle East.

Nor are Latin Americans unfamiliar with the seeming arrogance and ignorance with which American policy is formed and shaped. In this Canadians may feel some brotherhood. In point of fact, Washington’s Latin American policy is now made principally by and for “Cuban” voters in the critical swing state of Florida.

In place of American hegemony, Latin American leadership is now actively promoting some form of Latin America integration (ALBA, Hugo Chávez’ Bolivarian union, for example, or Mercosur); this integration process will commence with social, economic and political reforms at home, and then, like the E.U. before it, move on to regional-free trade and greater political cooperation amongst like-minded members. In time, it could well achieve much greater political integration.

This seems utopian at first glance. But the odds against it are in some ways less than for E.U. There are of course widely varying levels of industrialisation, from poor banana republics, on the one hand, and advanced industrial economies, on the other. But the differences are no greater, for example, than in the early Common-Market days between Germany and the Mezzagiorno, between France and Ireland, between Denmark and Spain. Central and South America at least speak only two languages and those two are closely related, more so than French and English in Canada. They have very similar histories. They have the same need for economic development and large markets. They all resent the U.S.A. The real and large economic gulfs are to be found more between the economic classes within each country than between rich and poor countries of Latin America.

What do the Masters of the Universe do now?

The old ruling classes and oligarchies in Latin America are, naturally, terrified. As always in the past, they run wringing their hands and clucking to Washington for succour, calling their new leaders over their shoulders dictators and communists. Nothing so gets the attention of the patriotic backwoods congressman like a good old-fashioned Red! They conspire with the C.I.A. to eject the new leaders from office, not stopping simply because the measures are illegal?
The U.S.A. hears their wailing. Distracted, however, by the catastrophic failure of its military adventurism in the Middle East, it is currently unclear how Washington can or will react. Most of Central and South America has anyway already joined the “Pink Tide” (of the larger units, only Columbia remain clearly true to older models; Mexico has already come within a hairs breadth of a New-Deal administration in its last federal election).

Bolivar’s successor

If there is one man in our own time, however, who has articulated the goals of the journey, has also laid out the route and is providing for the moment both the financial and moral drive, it is President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Is he a dictator? Is he the new Castro? Is he cunning or is he mad? Canadians, perhaps not yet totally beyond hope of finding their own way, may find a sermon here after all.

The next issue will discuss this key man.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I am including some photographs of the house where we are currently living in the village of La Guardia on Isla de Margarita, Venezuela. Basically we are house-sitting and one of my projects has been to do some gardening in the enclosed patio at the back of the house where we spend nearly all of our waking hours.

An autobiography started

My younger brother, Kenneth, is a genealogist - by trade, so to speak (he was until recently the Executive Director of the Ontario Genealogical Society While he was here in Venezuela for a visit recently he asked me to set down key dates in my life for incorporation into the family history that he is preparing. No problem! Should be easy, I reckoned. That initial barebones outline is turning into almost a full-scale autobiography. It hasn’t exactly taken over my life but I can see how it could. I should have recalled my rule about jigsaw puzzles: Don’t even start! I get obsessive about them and wind up staying up late at night to complete them. This could be something similar.

But I have to admit it is interesting. Like the other writing I do, you first have to decide who your readership is. Start with at least them in mind. I decided I was writing for my three teenage kids (well, one of them just turned twenty) and perhaps their children too. Including my future grandchildren, who would not likely read the text for another thirty to fifty years, made me realise that they certainly would not likely understand a lot of the terms, expressions and assumptions about, say, our daily life as children, what our houses looked like, about school discipline or school generally. When a friend read my journal about Vilisar’s cruise to Alaska in 2002, he had a million questions. He had no idea what a GPS is or whether at sea you simply somehow park for the night. How do you cook on the boat? What about toilet arrangements? What do you do with your time on long voyages?

A few years back, my genealogical brother developed an oral history project that tied into his family history project. Perhaps it was meant as a prelude to that task. Some ten years ago he taped a long series of interviews with my mother. She described the parsonages where she had been raised during the 1920’s and 30’s in Southeastern and Southern Ontario, for example, including everything from the kitchens, sleeping arrangements, laundry facilities, outhouses, horses, sleighs and buggies, etc. I can still remember some of the things myself from my own early childhood: horse-drawn wagons, etc. But my children have probably never even seen, let alone used, an outhouse. My kids were all born at the end of the 1980s or beginning of the 1990s (is it possible for anyone who is or is nearly an adult today to have been born in the 1980s? That was just yesterday, for Pete’s sake!), i.e., just as CDs were coming in. So, they had no idea what those LPs were that still lined the shelves in our apartment. “Dad! Where did you get these giant CDs?” You see what I mean? So I decided to give the autobiography somewhat of an oral history twist as well. Looked at another way, my grandparents were born in the 1880s and ‘90s and I was fascinated as a child to learn how they lived and what they did back then.

There are some natural divisions to the autobiography, of course. For example, family background and pre-school life; public schools (KG to VIII and including the various houses where we lived in); high school years; university; army service; post-graduate studies; professional life; loves and marriages; living in Germany and England, etc. etc. Nearly everybody would have the same breakdown, I suppose, unless you were part of some cataclysmic historical event like the Holocaust or World War II. If you start including descriptions of the houses where you lived, the schools you went to, the people you knew, your autobiography will be larger than the Complete Oxford History of the Western World. The problem is therefore by no means what to put in. The question is what to leave out?

I have also already made some interesting discoveries. First, when Kenneth visited me here, I was able to question him about our family roots. I thought I had a pretty good idea about this and, in a sort of general way, I guess I did. Most of our antecedents seem to have come from Scotland, England and Ulster following the Napoleonic Wars, say, from 1815 up until the 1840s or 1850s. But I had everything knickers-atwist. Yes, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, yes, Perthshire and Appleby figure in the salad. But of course I had nearly all the details wrong. This was my first discovery. Since I could hardly keep this sorted out in my head and since Kenneth was getting back to work on the family history, I decided to postpone doing any research on that part of the story for the moment at least.

I therefore started writing about the parts that are my own memories. I soon discovered that my most acute memories are of the years between when I was just about to start kindergarten at age five to about the time I entered high school at fourteen. Before that, my memories are sporadic and perhaps also informed by stories I heard from others or even old photographs. And after puberty the contours of events and the colours in my memories are also much less intense. I am not sure why this should be. It is just an initial observation.

A third discovery has to do with age and leisure. I searched the web for information about my old schools. I checked into the website of McMaster University, one of my undergraduate institutions (I attended Southwestern University for a year in Georgetown, Texas, and, several years later, did a year at the University of Toronto as an undergrad prior to attending King’s College in London to undertake a Master’s degree). I joined the McMaster Alumni Association (“We have you as a lost alumni,” they wrote back to me!) and searched their lists for people I had known in those years. The discovery is that you actually have time to look for them now.

Furthermore, they too are in the same age bracket as you and may have been doing some research themselves. I googled a few names and came up with an old friend whom I had known at the village school in Queenston, Ontario, at high school in Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and, finally, at McMaster. He had been researching his own family and had written up his memories of his childhood in the village and beyond. I last actually talked to Robin at college. I went off to the Army, he became a high-school teacher and then a university professor in British Columbia and Philadelphia and now lives, retired, with his partner in Mexico. There was a contact-email address and I wrote to him, somewhat tentatively, out of the blue, wondering if he might be piqued that I had let the contact wither. But no, I got a lovely reply back and we are now corresponding. He has all his old school and university yearbooks so can look stuff up as well. If I even still have them, mine are in crates and boxes in a friend’s attic in Germany.

Pretty good for a couple of weeks of work, don’t you think? I have only a most rudimentary idea of where my ancestors came from and who they were; my memories are much clearer of my public-school years than either before or after; and not only do I have time and perspective to write about “my life” now, there is also a potential readership (though they might not actually have been born yet), others are also investigating their family backgrounds and, very important, it is possible to re-establish contact to old friends.

On this latter point, some friends and even relatives have disappeared off the radar screen altogether while others, although they will have been giving off only faint blips, can easily be brought back into focus. In our so-called “productive years” we are busy with studies and careers, with raising families (and splitting them up). Now, with retirement or semi-retirement, we not only have the perspective to attempt a collection of our thoughts and some sort of summing up, we also have the time to reactivate friendships and even develop them more intensely. I realised when my younger brother visited me for five weeks in January that I had never actually ever spent any time alone with him. He is three years younger and I have an elder brother who is not even one year older than I am. Consequently, my strongest relationships and experiences growing up were with the older sibling. We were basically the same age and treated as such. But Kenneth and I also share a great deal of memories about family life, frequently, let it be said, with quite differing viewpoints and emphases. It was great to exchange these in a relaxed atmosphere.

Lew Mills was an Episcopal priest and a psychotherapist, our interim priest at the Church of Christ the King in Frankfurt and also, together with his wife, Joy, the priest who married Kathleen and me. His sermons were always down to earth and practical. I remember him saying one Sunday, “There are three important things (his sermons always had lists of threes): 1.) You are not going to be here forever; 2.) Sort out your relationships with the people who are important to you; and 3.) Start enjoying your life.” That seems like a good approach to mental health. My little autobiography might fit into this somehow.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Friday, March 02, 2007


After béisbol, baloncesto (basketball) and fútbol (in that order), one of the most popular sports in Venezuela is cockfighting. Every little town and village has a small sawdust-on-dirt ring measuring about twenty feet in diameter and surround by a few rows of bleachers. Jens takes Kathleen and me along with Sigrid (a guest from Bavaria at the posada) up to Fuentadueña, a small semi-mountain village above San Juan, for one of the regular Saturday rounds of fights.

The ring, La Gallera, is behind a row of houses and shaded by large mango trees and a sun roof. The afternoon is well under way when we arrive. Cockfighting is a man thing in Latin America, still home to other blood sports like dog and bullfighting. As we arrive a cockfight is already in progress. It elicits much excited shouting. Many of the guys are four sheets to the wind (at least). The shouting is, on the one hand, to cheer the red cockerel that is clearly winning, to encourage the losing white rooster, on the other hand, that is taking one hell of a shellacking and, finally, to place the many bets that are going on back and forth across the arena. Nobody is writing anything down, but I guess they are somehow able to keep track of things.

The white rooster is really getting the worst of things. He staggers around and falls over, seemingly unconscious. No Marquis of Queensbury Rules here, however! No counting out. It’s like bare-knuckle boxing: the fight goes on till somebody is dead or cannot get up any more. The red rooster pecks over and over again, sometimes grasping the neck of the downed opponent till he pulls him to his feet. Then the white one suddenly briefly comes alive though clearly he is very groggy and is staggering. Blood is falling onto the sawdust. Is he just playing dead from time to time? I want the referee to count him out and send everybody to the dressing rooms.

Instead, exhausted, the weakened bird collapses again. Twice the referee – Yep! there’s a referee! – blows his whistle when the white bird has lain motionless for a period of about thirty seconds. The two birds are then put back in a two-chamber box that is let down by rope from the ceiling. The white bird lies seemingly dead in his cage while the red one looks around calmly. Roosters, I observe, don’t actually have much facial expression so there doesn’t seem to be much gloating, no Mohamed Ali crowing (sic).

This whole time the betting is still going on at top volume across and around the ring. Will the white bird revive? Can he still win? The odds keep changing. The first time the box is used and ten seconds timed by the referee, the white cock must have moved a muscle, stimulating a total betting frenzy. The boxes are raised again and the fight continues – more frantic betting – though not for much longer. The second time the boxes are used, the white bird wisely stays motionless. I reckon he’s dead but my neighbour is not so sure.

Now comes the real test. The apparently dead or unconscious white rooster is taken from the cage and laid carefully on the ground a slight distance off. Then a completely fresh cockerel is presented to the motionless bird. If the motionless bird does not move - the betting is now reaching a real crescendo – the fight is over and the white cock will have lost outright. Frequently, however, the seemingly a difunto bird instinctively jumps up ready to do battle again. Talk about a stupid bird! That’s just what happened in this case. The result is that the cockfight is declared a draw, the owner of the white bird leaps ecstatically into ring and rescues his bird, jubilant that it is still alive and happy to have won some money.

Now everyone takes a break for half an hour. Most of the men have been drinking great quantities of beer and head out behind the shack for a pit stop. The smell of urine is strong. Thus enlightened, they head to a covered concrete platform nearby to get a fresh beer at the bar and to place bets on the horse races, the results of which are being either called in by cellphone or broadcast by radio, I can never make out which. There are a couple of bookies standing on the steps, calling out the odds and taking bets.

There are a few women around but ninety-nine percent of those in attendance are men, of which ninety-nine percent would not in any sane society be allowed behind the wheel of a car. Fortunately, most Venezuelans cannot yet afford a car. Ten percent of them can hardly stand. I wonder to myself if they are perhaps the car-owning minority here. Another ten percent might be sober but maybe they are just not showing the effects. One guy who we saw outside on the way here has refilled his nearly empty whisky bottle and is staggering around barefoot in the ring and getting in the way. We take lots of pictures of the guys, men of all ages, including boys of around nine or ten. Nobody objects. In fact they seem to love it and pose and laugh like school kids when they see the instant results.

Eventually some guys urge us back into the bleachers for the next round. Another white one and another red one. Fighting cocks have their backs plucked bare for some reason, their shanks too. They are lean and would not probably even soften up in a soup. Sometimes around town you will see some guy with his fighting cock out for a walk with a string tied to one leg so it doesn’t get away or get into trouble, or carrying it loveingly and stroking it gently.

The boxes are let down to the sawdust and the birds placed inside after spurs made out of rooster claws have been taped somehow to the ankles. The whistle goes, the cracked dilapidated kitchen-clock is checked and the fight is on. The avid betters are right in the ring with the birds trying to see what is going on in the melée, which at this point is just a blur of white and red wings. When they step back the birds have their necks stretched out horizontally, their beaks open and the feathers around their necks standing straight up. They go in for the clinch again, pecking and scratching and leaping into the air so they can bring their claws to bear to scratch and tear.

Within a minute or so the man next to me says that the white one is the stronger and will surely win. And, sure enough, not only does he win he actually breaks the neck of the red rooster and kills it. No draw here. The owner is jubilant and so are the winning bettors. We decide to leave.

Well, I guess I am slightly ashamed of myself for going to a blood-sport event. But I wanted to see local culture and this is part of it. It’s not a pretty sight to see and it’s to the death. But the men were without exception cheerful and friendly to us, even though, or because, most of them are pretty polluted. We take pictures of them proudly holding their roosters while they “crowed” about how many victories this bird or that bird had had already. I would wager that a lot of Venezolanos have alcohol and gambling problems.

So, been there! Done that! I reckon I shall skip it in the future.

Isla Coche

Together with our Canadian friends René and Francine and their friends Marie-Estella and Noëlle, all from Laval near Montreal, we book a boat ride yesterday in a peñero (roughly twenty-five-foot wooden motorboat of local design) to Isla Coche. Marie and Noëlle are staying at Jens’ posada; René and Francine have a rented apartment just down the street at Señor Romero’s beach house. We have come to enjoy their company and get together for a sundowner now and then.

Our peñero departs from a wooden dock at Playa El Yaque. I mention the dock because, in the three Latin American countries with which we are familiar - Mexico, Ecuador and Venezuela - actual docking facilities for pangas, peñeros, lanchas, or whatever local fishermen call their small, open boats, are remarkable for their absence. Instead of docking, fishermen either pull their boats up on the beach or anchor them slightly offshore. If they are Mexicans, perhaps I should add, and are therefore somewhat wealthier and have much bigger outboard motors, the fishermen simply drive their pangas full speed at the beach and come to a halt, propellers whining, above the waterline. Today there is a lot of waiting about, first for a jeep-drawn tourist buggy to take us about two hundred and fifty metres to the dock and then for the boat from Isla Coche to pick us up. Fortunately we have a reservation. Those without have to wait.

The trip across takes half an hour at good speed driven by two 200 horsepower Japanese outboard engines. Half of the passengers are tourists, the remainder locals. Although technically an open boat, this peñero has a wooden sunroof and plastic side curtains. The reason for the latter becomes apparent on the way back in mid-afternoon. By that time the wind has picked up and waves with whitecaps are rolling down the bay. The boat’s fast motion throws up spray that the wind then drives back against the windward side of the boat.

Since Marie-Estella is currently waiting for operations on her knees and is therefore not able to walk much, the trip is basically to sample the glaring white beaches on Isla Coche. To this end we take a dip in the crystal clear and somewhat cool water and then crawl under one of the sunbather awnings. The breezes ameliorate the intense heat but not the glare. The island is about 11 x 6 km. long, so much smaller than Margarita. But, along with Playa el Yaque, it is famous for its steady and strong winds and therefore an attraction for wind- and kite-surfers. By early afternoon the waters off the beach where we were getting our sunburn is full of colourful sails. The beach sand is like wheaten floor, white and fine.

Comparing notes, Kathleen and I realise that we have not ever actually spent any part of a day just lying on a beach and certainly not to get a suntan – not at least since we moved aboard Vilisar five and one-half years ago. While our friends are actually sprawled out on lounges to get the full impact of mid-day sunbeams, we stay in the shade and even cover up a bit. We still get sunburnt, though. I guess the glare off the beach and the water was enough to do that.

We also realise that we are completely unfamiliar with tours and organised tourism. I find it strange to wait for so long for transportation and lining up for things like the lunch buffet at a playa restaurant. But we thoroughly enjoy being with our friends and practising our French after so many years.