CHUAO, Venezuela — It has been a week since Hugo Chavez’s landslide electoral victory — but that is not why the president’s supporters are still laughing in Chuao, a fishing village on Venezuela’s surf-pounded Atlantic coast.
Last Sunday, in the general hilarity and excitement of the results, a carouser popped a wheelie by Chuao’s colonial-era 17th-century church and fell off his motorbike. When the gas tank ignited in the crash, the bystanders’ laughter soared into the night sky alongside the roaring flames.
“At least the motorbike didn’t explode!” grinned Elvis Morillo, a burly Afro-Caribbean fisherman.
Chuao is a “chavista” stronghold and also one of those semi-mythic Latin American towns that seem to leap from the pages of a novel. It is accessible only by boat, so that even the town’s new school bus had to be brought in by surfing it on the waves.
Two hundred years ago, Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator and Chavez’s hero, passed a night of despair here — and, some say, contemplated suicide until the aroma of the cacao drying on the church patio lifted his spirits.
Four years ago, Chavez used Chuao’s cobbled streets and palm-fringed bay as a backdrop for his “Al Presidente” television show. “Hello, Chuao!” he exclaimed at the start of the eight hour talk-a-thon, before declaring a series of new socialist projects.
Such histories, old and new, make Chuao a folkloric microcosm of modern Venezuela. It is also why the town and its 3,000 inhabitants help illuminate why Chavez has been reelected president for another six years after what many consider 14 ruinous years in power.
“Of course I voted for ‘mi presidente,’ ” said fisherman Orlando Santana, while tying up at Chuao’s new stone wharf, built thanks to a $698,000 “revolutionary” reconstruction project, as a broken billboard nearby declares. “Why would I vote for anyone else?”
However, Chavez’s political success owes less to revolutionary ideology than to a petrodollar-financed love affair with voters.
Black gold flows through Venezuela, the Saudi Arabia of South America but with more oil reserves, and over the past decade Chavez has showered it on Venezuela’s poor. The flow has been immense: $1tn of revenues over the past decade. Yet as Chuao shows, Venezuelan history is replete with natural bounty abundantly displayed: It is Latin America’s traditional, some say pre-modern, way of doing things.
Chuao’s ancient hacienda still grows a cacao so fine that chocolatiers, such as France’s Valhrona, consider it the “best in the world.” In colonial times, this “premiere cru” cacao turned Chuao into such a font of wealth — the oil gusher of its day — that it financed the first university in Caracas, a white neo-Gothic structure near the Plaza Bolivar.
The education that Chuao provided then and that Chavez provides now — he has expanded university enrolment four times — can be a source of both personal self-advancement and revolutionary renewal, as Chavez so often says.
Indeed, when the hacienda’s last owner, the pious Dona Catalina Mexia del Castillo died in 1669, she bequeathed Chuao to the slaves who worked there on the condition that they stayed and grew cacao.
Which they did, so forging a distinctively rebellious local popular culture.
At religious festivals, masked men dressed as laughing devils castigate onlookers while cackling with laughter. It’s a culture in keeping with a gauche brassiness that is peculiarly Venezuelan, and with which Chavez empathizes.
“I’m also a devil. We’re all devils — good devils, because there are bad devils, too,” he had joked to his Chuao audience during his TV show.
As elsewhere in Venezuela, not everyone is won over by Chavez’s demagoguery or folksy turns.
“I voted for the opposition because I’m the only intelligent person here,” said Juan Velocidad, an overweight beach restaurateur.
The waste and corruption of Chavez’s extravagant state-sponsored populism is huge. As they say in Caracas: “Any senior chavista who hasn’t made millions is a ‘huevon,’ ” or fool. Yet with 300 billion barrels of oil reserves, worth more than $30 trillion at current prices, people’s lives have improved, and the government still enjoys a huge margin of error.
That is just as well, because the 58-year-old Chavez, although he says he is cured of cancer, may have just begun a tricky transition by appointing Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, a street-sharp former union bus driver, as his vice president and eventual successor.
Not that anyone in Chuao seems worried about such distant political concerns. Here, the smooth continuation of Chavez’s presidency has returned life to the way it was four months ago, before the election hysteria, which is why the burning motorcycle, for now, is the only news worth talking about.
— Financial Times