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.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, 17 May 2007

Temporary blog hiatus

I am somewhat handicapped at the moment because my laptop and digital camera along with some money were stolen in a robbery at our house here in La Guardia. Maybe that's what I get for wondering aloud in print recently about the high crime rate in Venezuela!

Anyway, we shall be heading back to Ecuador in about a week at which time I might be able to join up with a used computer and camera coming with my teenage son. The good part of the story is that we are both unharmed though a little shaken by the experience. Maybe one day I shall blog the whole ghastly saga.

Contribute a comment

Thanks to those who contributed comments especially about the article below called "How not to win friends and influence people". I would love to hear from more people on the topics of how to protest the "detention" of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and how to end the occupation of Iraq.
La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, 17 May 2007

Temporary blog hiatus

I am somewhat handicapped at the moment because my laptop and digital camera along with some money were stolen in a robbery at our house here in La Guardia. Maybe that's what I get for wondering aloud in print recently about the high crime rate in Venezuela!

Anyway, we shall be heading back to Ecuador in about a week at which time I might be able to join up with a used computer and camera coming with my teenage son. The good part of the story is that we are both unharmed though a little shaken byt he experience. Maybe one day I shall blog the whole ghastly saga.

Contribute a comment

Thanks to those who contributed comments especially about the article below called "How not to win friends and influence people". I would love to hear from more people on the topics of how to protest the "detention" of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and how to end the occupation of Iraq.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Depending upon how you look at it, the intermittent stream of visitors at our front door can be a nuisance, a welcome distraction from the little jobs you would prefer not to get started at or a chance to meet the neighbours. Last night, for example, as we are just finishing our dinner, Paola, who lives just kitty-corner from us, calls out from the front. (At night and when we are out of the house, this is a wooden door that is locked tight. During the day and early evening the wooden door stands open and only the steel security gate is kept closed and locked. There is no doorbell so visitors announce themselves by calling out to us somewhere in the inner reaches of the house or patio. The calls range from Olla! Amigo! Hoo-aahh! and various other whistles or calls. Sometimes they even remember to hail Señor Ron or Capitan Ronaldo.)

Paola, anyway, is here to talk about us staying with her son Alexander in Caracas on our bus trip to Columbia and right on through to Quito, Ecuador. What we have forgotten to tell Paola is that we have already decided not to do this at this time. “Gracias de dios!” she says clapping her hands together and rolling her eyes heavenward under the full moon and bright early-evening stars where we sit in the patio. The bus trip to Caracas alone would be 14 hours, she reckons out for us, with another similar time just to get to the Columbian border. And then twenty-fours to Bogotá and we would not even be halfway across the country.

Although we had originally thought of making the trip in stages with stops in interesting places like Cartegena, Medellin, etc., she still thinks we would need culos de acero (bums of steel) to ride across Columbia by bus. It’s not dangerous, she says. Just long! We were able to relieve her mind: in fact, just today we paid for our flights to Guayaquil via Caracas and booked for 24 may 2007.

Paola and her family are Columbians. Her Spanish is far clearer and easier for us to understand than the dialect and difficult accent of the Margariteños with their dropped S’s (Bueno dia = Buenos Dias; do mi = dos mil). Columbians talk fast but they speak clearly and roll their R’s nicely. Usually Paola speaks with reserve. But tonight she is very lively. In the discussion she makes quite a lot of comparisons between Columbia and Venezuela for our benefit. She grew up the sixth child of a large ranch family near the border and then, later, in a small agricultural border city in an area where the para-militarios play a prominent local role. She and her family moved to Venezuela for economic opportunity. Venezuelans at one time considered themselves completely above Columbians. This was long before Chávez and before the collapse of last oil boom totally and IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes completely inflated Venezuela’s sense of national achievement and self-importance.

Now, she says, it is physically much, much safer in Columbia than Venezuela. At one time, it was the police who were the most corrupt element in Columbia along with the whole public administration. Now, however, the people and the streets are at least safe. The para-militaries cleaned up the drug scene (she says) in the rural areas where they are strong, and the government sorted out the police elsewhere. Both groups exert a lot of summary power to arrest, threaten or even kill drug users and pushers outright. The para-militaries, of course, try to show the people that they can govern better than the government. They probably can too. But they are even less undemocratic than the government of Columbia.

Meanwhile, Paola thinks the police are corrupt in Venezuela and do nothing to help the little guy: she would not waste her time approaching them even for a serious complaint. A waste of time and it would require money to grease palms. She stays away from them here even though they are just around the corner and there are lots of reasons to call them. The amount of drug usage in the village is enormous, not to mention the drunkenness and violencia. Venezuela has the highest level criminality and violence of South America.

Back to Columbia, on the other hand, the government is totally in the pocket of wealthy oligarchs, who in turn are close to the U.S.A. Nobody does anything whatsoever for the poor people. Columbia lives from American “Plan Columbia” foreign aid (Columbia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel and Egypt). It is supposed to stop drugs flowing to the U.S.A. Drug usage, Paola says, is in fact a thing of the past in Columbia (hard to believe): it all now goes - lots of it - to the U.S.A., Canada, etc.

In Venezuela, at least, there might be a lot of drug usage, Paola says, and the streets are still a long way from being as safe as in Columbia. But Chávez is at least doing something for the poor people: food, housing, healthcare and education are only the beginning. Like other pro-Chávez Venezolanos we have talked to, they think perhaps that Chavez should not be “wasting” domestic oil monies by giving too much away to other countries even though they understand it might be necessary to help create a new Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR) and greater political integration for Latin America. The little guy in Venezuela might like suck up American culture. But they know what has happened, politically, in the past in Latin America and are cynical about American actions here. The backing of the anti-Chavez coup in 2002 is just one thing.

Having studied the phenomenon of Venezuela and Chávez now for some time including parallel developments in Ecuador and other countries (see earlier articles on this blog: “Chávez, Venezuela and the Pink Tide”; “The New Face of Latin America ”; “Ecuador Elections”: etc.), I was interested to hear again the opinions of various local people. Paola is a strong contrast to, say, several middle-class ex-pats that I have met. They are to a man anti-Chávez. They think he is a dictator. What’s worse, they are convinced that he will one day kick them all out and grab their houses. This is completely against Venezuelan law and atypical of Chávez’s actions to date, of course. But that does little to alleviate their worries. They lump Chavez together with expropriators like Castro and Lenin.

Every new event is just one more confirmation. Take the new tax policies, for example: user and sales taxes are being replaced by progressive income and inheritance taxes. Or take the programme of “nationalisation” of foreign corporate holdings: Chávez is in the process of buying back key industries like communications and electrical utilities that were privatised into American ownership under the disastrous IMF neo-liberal Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP’s) of the nineties. The Venezuelan Government is not expropriating these, mind you, as in Cuba back then, but is paying the market price for the shares. Whatever Chávez does, however, is characterised as dictatorial or communistic, or the work of a mad clown.

Two recent events are making the ex-pats and Chávez opponents in Venezuela nervous again. First, the decision not to renew the public TV licence of RCTV, a large and prominently anti-Chávez national channel with studios and offices in Caracas. RCTV has turned out its very large staff as well as staff and suppliers from other media institutions like newspapers, magazines, etc. for hugely public street demos in Caracas last week. All the actors and cameramen and business executives were out there demonstrating for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. A trifle self-serving since they are not actually about to lose their jobs, as I understand it. RCTV was one of the active initiators of the violent, seditious and American-backed coup against Chávez in 2002 and it’s the public airwaves licence that is not being renewed. This would have happened in any other democratic country, I am sure. Press freedom is not a licence for the violent overthrow of duly elected civilian governments, surely.

Note what has not happened. The government, for example, has never moved in with secret police or the military to shut things down. The TV station, a leading producer of soap operas that it sells throughout Latin American, can still broadcast via their large cable and satellite systems and is still free to produce and sell soaps or to produce anti-government propaganda at will. The government argues that RCTV lost its right to the Venezuela’s public airwaves because RCTV acted seditiously and irresponsibly. That‘s certainly true enough! The problem is that there is not really any due process in this country to decide things like this and it can also be presented by the opposition to look like high-handed and dictatorial behaviour. I wonder what will happen now after the licence expires this month. Will RCTV just continue broadcasting? That is the sort of provocative thing RCTV might attempt. Would the police move in and the media shout “Dictator?”

Chávez may have bitten off more than he can chew on this one. There is an old adage: if you want to fight a newspaper (or TV station, one supposes), you should buy a newspaper. Although Chávez’s popularity remains undiminished, a lot of normal people think he should not have done this. Of course, they are getting their information on the issue from RCTV and their fellow anti-Chávez stations. The ex-pats, meanwhile, find they cannot sleep at night.

The second event to raise local ex-pat ire and nervousness is the closing of the large gambling casino on Isla de Margarita. I was first told that the government arbitrarily started assessing income taxes or some sort of gaming taxes and the owners, whoever they are, decided to shut down the casino and lay off the employees. Although I haven’t been able to figure it out, there has to be more to this story. A casino, for example, would be an ideal place to launder money. Margarita is famous for it thanks to all the tourists coming through. The official rate for bolivars is about half of the black market rate at present. Maybe this explainbs why the casino was closed.

Just another arbitrary and anti-democratic measure, the ex-pats exclaim, and hasten to add other titbits. Chávez, I have been told with absolute confidence, only won the last federal election by fraud. It might well have been reported that he received 63% of the votes with 75% of the 16 million voters turning up at the polls. All rubbish! Don’t bother pointing out that, not only did Rosales, the neo-liberal opposition candidate and governor of one of the big Venezuelan provinces, publicly concede defeat and personally state that the elections were fair. Nonsense! One ex-pat even told me authoritatively that Rosales was coerced into saying this because Chávez threatened Rosales’s son with assassination. No source given for this piece of startling news beyond the boulevard press, which needless to say, is owned by the opposition magnates. Go ahead, tell them that the E.U., the O.A.S. (Organisation of American States) and Jimmy Carter all certified the elections as fair and properly run. The ex-pats become perhaps a little uncertain but refuse to abandon their position.

Maybe they aren’t selling their houses yet. But they seem to live with their mental baggage packed and probably keep their money in Zurich. The ex-pats I have talked with here, Germans, Danes and Americans, as it happens, - they none of them really read a newspaper beyond Bild-Zeitung type boulevard sheets. They get their real info from the rumour mills. It reminds me a lot of the middle-class Germans I knew over there in the seventies and eighties: they were absolutely gut-afraid that the Reds were going to take Oma’s little cottage and turn her out into the street. For them, Willy Brand, Helmut Schmidt and that whole pack of Social Democrats were just the spearhead of a wave of Marxist expropriations. Chávez might do well to make efforts to reassure these people here in Venezuela. But, since they do not trust him one iota anyway, maybe it would be just a waste of time. As for the Venezuelan well-to-do, they continue to hate Chávez and all his works and their capital takes flight for Miami every time Chávez holds a press conference. The loyal opposition!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Friday, 20 April 2007

Kathleen met many old American, English and German friends of ours on her recent working trip to Europe. We all lived at the same time in Frankfurt in the eighties and nineties, and many were members of the same Episcopal parish and choir there.

Some discussion came up about getting together again in the U.S.A. for another reunion with close friends in the coming winter or during 2008. One of the complicating factors, however, is that I refuse at the moment to visit the U.S.A. as a protest against the United States Government’s invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq and the kidnapping, torture and ongoing incarceration of prisoners at Guantanamo.

This apparently has upset some. One of our close friends wrote an email to Kathleen saying in effect that I am anti-American, that I am demonising and stereotyping Americans, that such thinking is destructive, inaccurate and self-serving, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are worthy ideals even if not lived up to, that propaganda and abuse of power are not uniquely American but a result of human nature, and that staying away from friends and family is a questionable response.

That’s pretty heavy! Obviously, I have offended an old friend perhaps to the point of losing her. So, I guess I had better explain myself.

First, if it makes any difference at all, I am closely linked to the U.S.A. through family and friends. My parents emigrated from Canada in 1959 and eventually became naturalised American citizens. My mother still lives in a nursing home in a large American city. I myself lived in the U.S.A. for one year and have been back dozens and dozens of times over the years on both business and pleasure. I have two siblings still living with their children and grandchildren in the States. Indeed, my own three children from a previous marriage are American citizens through their mother. My wife is American and we have close relationships with her family in the U.S.A. too. I am living proof of how close our two countries are.

It is in the nature of a boycott to sacrifice something valuable to oneself as a protest. I deny myself visits to the U.S.A. when I can also see my family and friends. So I hurt myself by my protest though I will interrupt my boycott for family emergencies. I suspect that were I to give up bungee-jumping or skydiving, chocolate milkshakes or apple pie by way of protest that the protest might not have the gravitas required. My children can and do visit me regularly wherever I am living at the time outside of their country – in Canada, in Europe or, currently, in South America - and so do my wife’s parents and occasionally other family members. My protest is to refuse to visit the country simply for business or pleasure.

If it makes any difference, I also refuse to visit the U.K. or any other member of the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” and for exactly the same reasons: the U.S.A. and the U.K. along with its minor spear-carrying allies conspired to attack, invade and occupy a country that had in no way threatened the territorial integrity of the attackers or the lives of their people. They did so without the approval of the U.N. – indeed, the U.S.A. and the U.K. openly snubbed their noses at the U.N. thereby hastening its effective decline as an agent of peace – and despite 99.9% assurances from the U.N. nuclear inspectorate that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The other reasons given as the justification for the war – links to Al Qaida and other anti-American terrorist groupings, for example – have proven equally spurious. That leaves only the argument that Saddam was beastly to his own people; that’s certainly true enough but is that a reason to invade. Beastly to Iraqis has anyway since the invasion taken on new meaning.

Some exculpate the Administration on the basis of “bad intelligence”. Leaving aside the permutations of the word intelligence given the leading lights (well, that’s another problematic term) of the current U.S. and U.K. governments, it has now been pretty clearly established that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Blair had all the right intelligence but were determined to ignore it. Knowing they could provide no acceptable reasons for going to war, they set out to hoodwink Congress, ride roughshod over Parliament, bullshit the U.N. and bamboozle the voters. After all, if you and I and every other aware person at the time knew from public sources like The New Yorker (Seymour Hersh), Harpers, other independent media, Scott Ritter, etc., etc., etc. that we were being lied to, that the reasons for going to war were at best weak and, worse, completely unfounded, that they were not in any case enough to flout the U.N. and world public opinion and certainly not enough to justify such an attack in international law, then surely George W. Bush et alia knew this too. Of course they knew!

So, we and they knew the facts before the war started and invasion was in no way justified. All of this has been repeatedly confirmed since then by those in the know. Certainly it was widely enough known to bring millions out onto the streets in massive protests around the world even before the bombers and cruise missiles went in.

What we did not know then and are still perhaps trying to get a handle on is the U.S. government’s real motivation. The U.K. is perhaps easier to understand: given that Bush et alia were going to attack no matter what, Blair & Co. decided to get extra brownie points for its “Special Relationship”. For the Bush Administration, on the other hand, we’re still guessing. Was it oil that drove the war planning? Or was it long-term strategic chess-playing in the Middle East? Maybe indeed it was even world domination, as the Project for a New American Century proposes. Maybe it was Junior trying to show up Dad. Maybe it was a naïve belief that democracy can be brought to the world at the point of a gun. Or was it a dividend for the government’s corporate clientele?

Just listing them underlines that none of these reasons justifies crimes against peace and crimes against humanity by attacking Iraq, killing thousands of civilians and servicemen and bombing the country “back to the Stone Age”. The question is not, therefore, whether I protest this in my small way, but rather why there is not much more protest even in the U.S.A.

It sickens to see how much of the mass media in the U.S.A. and Britain slavered for the war. It sickens to realise that the anti-war movement in the U.S.A. and the U.K. is nearly non-existent. It sickens to realise that one president can be impeached simply for schlocky personal behaviour whereas even a Democratic Congress declines to consider impeaching a president, vice-president and leading appointees when, using the standards set at the Nuremberg trials, they should not only be impeached but charged as war criminals.

You can tell me that not visiting the U.S.A. or U.K. is ineffective. You can tell me that boycotts of this nature are blunt instruments. But you cannot call it demonising or stereotyping Americans. Surely in that case I would be refusing to have anything at all to do with Americans just because they are Americans. I am not at all “anti-American”. Do I stereotype all Americans? How could I given my family and friends? But I am critical of the American Government and frustrated that Americans themselves do so little about it. I can only assume that a very large proportion of Americans support the Government. I have learned too much, perhaps, about how the United States operates abroad to be an uncritical cheerleader: just spend a few years in Latin America to focus your historical perspective. But I try to focus my criticisms narrowly on specific actions. In this case, i.e. in the case of Iraq, surely naked aggression is way over the line.

So mine is a protest against the illegal and immoral actions of the American Government. For someone who, I regret to say, did nothing to protest the Viet Nam war years and years ago, my small protest this time seems the least I can do.

Like my friend, I too admire the “narrative” of the U.S.A., the Constitution, the countervailing forces, the Bill of Rights, the judicial system, the free and free-wheeling public media. (The narrative might overlook some inconvenient historical details like slavery, imperial land grabs and sweating of labourers, but let’s assume the narrative is the articulation of ideals rather than a history book.) I am critical but do not protest when I see that these high ideals are frequently ignored at home; that’s the business of the Americans themselves. Were I a foreign black man before 1862, however, – indeed before 1962 - I might also have considered boycotting parts or all of the U.S.A. by way of protest, not to mention personal safety. Because it comes closer to impacting me personally, however, I am more upset when American political ideals so manifestly fail to inform American policy and actions abroad.

But, more horrendous for this discussion however, is the realisation that, individually or together, the great panoply of American institutions has completely failed to come even close to preventing the war crimes or to stopping the ongoing horrendous acts. It might, I accept, have something to do with human nature. But we are not talking about a hurricane, a volcano or a tsunami. Concrete choices were made. And there may even be worse to come: doesn’t talk of nuking Iran make Americans nervous?

Of course, there have been individual acts of courage –Senator Byrd in the Congress, some independent media, some individual protesters such as Scott Ritter, Kathy Kelly, Cindy Sheehan. Their poignant protests only underline that the reality is much worse: the President, his Vice-President and his cabinet, the Congress, the Courts and the media, i.e. all the elements of the vaunted American system, have actually actively conspired to initiate and to support this continuing war. Hell! Even half the voters approved of it in 2004! Still today, the opposition is so weak in the United States that it has not been able to prevent even the serious erosion of the civil rights and liberties of the American people themselves.

And that brings me to the two further points. While there is still much to admire, if Americans themselves can be arrested and incarcerated without the protection of their laws or their courts, then we can surely agree that the “narrative” has been seriously trashed and Americans are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Carry on with daily life but don’t be surprised when you, your child or your neighbour gets a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

So where does that leave foreigners like me who visit the U.S.A.? What about a foreigner who is perhaps labelled anti-American even by his friends? I don’t seriously suppose I am subversive enough to get the treatment that one foreigner, Canadian as it happens, received while changing planes in New York: innocent of wrongdoing, he was secretly “rendered” by the U.S.A. to Syria, kept in solitary confinement and tortured for two years. That’s only one case. Guantánamo and what other hellholes are full of others. Objectively seen, my public scribblings about, say, Chávez in Venezuela or American policy in Latin American are small potatoes. But, several acquaintances and friends, Americans as it happens, have suggested that, although they agree with me, it is perhaps dangerous these days to be so public in my views. And, surely, if even some of my own American family members and friends admit that they are hesitant or afraid to speak up nowadays, what is a foreigner without any rights whatsoever to think about travelling to the U.S.A.? I would risk it for a family emergency but not for something less.

I am sorry that some of my friends are offended by this position. Maybe they can understand it after reading the above. I assume it was a slip of the pen to say that I demonise or stereotype Americans. I try not to do that. I am too close to Americans not to recognise the diversity within the country. I assume it was also not seriously intended to call my protest “self-serving” either. I am not anti-American. I am not trying to punish Americans personally. I accept even that it is perhaps a small, ineffective, unfocussed and futile protest. It impacts me as well because I should like to see my friends and family perhaps even more than they should like to see me. Nothing would make me happier if I did not feel the need to protest at all. But, in the current situation, only Americans can end the war, reduce the huge war-making machinery and generally get the narrative back on track. (They might want to take better care of each other at home too but that’s their business.) I would be more than happy if my American relatives and friends would make it possible for me to visit them in the U.S.A. again.

Finally, if they are not happy with my protest, perhaps my American friends could suggest another way for me to protest what is happening. Or, better yet, convince me that my protest is not necessary because they have some other way of stopping the carnage, the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq. And soon.