Venezuela

When I returned from working in Okinawa in 1995, I stewed around the house I shared with my cousin Ron and my Mom for months, doing pretty much nothing but making copious amounts of bread, elaborate chocolate cakes and five course dinners.

I had enough money in the bank to live a little while with no other income, was getting a generous unemployment check, and really had no ambition at all. I knew it wouldn’t last very long, but I took advantage of it.

Both Mom and Ron had jobs that they went off too every day, so I would tumble out of bed mid morning, start yet another loaf of homemade bread, and decide what cake I would make from my “Death by Chocolate” cookbook, and what I would fix for dinner. I set elaborate tables, or at least for me they were elaborate, as in I rarely used anything paper.

I got a call one day from an ex-boss of mine who I had worked for before I wandered off to Japan, and he asked me if I might be interested in a few months of consulting work for a company that Adelphia had a minor interest in down in Venezuela.

Having nothing else to do at the time, I agreed to take a look at it, and within a couple of weeks, I found myself on an American Airlines flight to Caracas, Venezuela.

I really had no idea what to expect. I knew virtually nothing about Venezuela, and was completely unaware at the time that most of the country fell very squarely into the “third world” category. There was practically no middle class, even in Caracas, you either were very wealthy or you were a serf.

In 1995 when I arrived in Caracas, the experience at the airport scared the holy crap out of me. Immediately after clearing customs, I was surrounded by dozens of clamoring taxi drivers, all wanting my business. Several of them were so bold as to actually pick up my belongings and start loading them into their rather decrepit 1960’s model machines. Thankfully I finally was able to connect with the person who was picking me up, and we made the 30 kilometer’ish drive over the mountains into Caracas.

Caracas is actually in a valley, surrounded by mountains, and is about 20 miles or more inland from the coast. It sits fairly high – about 3000 feet in elevation, has a rather mild climate – much the same as Honolulu.

Unlike Honolulu, the city is ringed with slums, perched illegally on whatever land is available. Shacks built of whatever is at hand – cardboard, corrugated sheets of iron, plywood and plastic milk crates. Electricity, if it is available, is stolen from the local power grid by throwing a wire over one of the Arial conductors – and often people are killed this way trying to steal power from the grid. There is now sewer – bathrooms, if present at all are simply open pipes into what passes for streets, or they just sluice down whatever hillside they are perched over. When traveling from the airport into Caracas, you have to pass several of these encampments, although thankfully not drive directly through them.

They are however, highly visible from within the city as they usually are at a higher elevation, and from most any point in the city you can look out on one of these peasant camps.

When I first arrived in Caracas, my employer put me up in a cute little one bedroom apartment in a neighborhood called Valle Arriba. It’s a terraced community carved into the side of a canyon, and I was several hundred feet above the American Embassy, and my balcony faced pretty much due east. Using a telescope, many evenings I was able to discern two or even three of the moons of Jupiter – the smog of Caracas lay way below and the skies of Valle Arriba were clear.

When I arrived in Caracas, the president was Rafael Caldera. He was considered to be a fairly harmless old man, the rich got richer, the poorer at least had something to eat, electricity flowed most times, and if you lived in a decent neighborhood, you even got running water for a few hours every couple of days.

After about six months, I moved to a new apartment – a penthouse on the top floor of a 10 story building on a gated street on Calle F, just off the Avinida Rio de Janerio. I had a great view of the Avida mountain that towers over much of Caracas, and I was only a few blocks from the Presidential Palace and my balcony overlooked east end of the military airport that dominates the center of Caracas. It was a 10 minute drive to my office at the warehouse facility run by Supercable de Venezuela in Las Ruices.

I had a great two year run from what was originally supposed to be just a couple of months worth of consulting. I ended up running the warehouse and purchasing for Supercable de Venezuela for much of 1995 and 1996. I wasn’t paid all that much, but my housing and transportation was covered, I didn’t have to pay U.S. income taxes because all of my income was exempt, and the cost of living in Caracas was so low that I had a hard time finding ways to spend what money I did make. I sent a lot of what I made back to the States to pay bills there.

In mid-1997, Mr. Khamsi, the president of Supercable declined to renew my contract. I never could get a straight answer out of the man. He was Iranian by birth, but his family fled to Peru when the Shah of Iran fell. He was a Bahai, so he tried to balance the tenents of his religion against his vast wealth and his extreme greediness. He usually failed miserably, and most people who had to deal with him thought he was a snake. I never trusted him as far as I could throw him, but was humbled a bit on a day I was miserably sick at home and he showed up at my door with an arm full of drug store remedies and wishing me well. I don’t think he personally cared a twit, but his religion required that he show humility. It made him very difficult to read.

The building I lived in overlooked the military airport, and apparently in the early 1990’s, Hugo Chavez, a young army officer led an attempted coup against the state – and the building was pockmarked with bullets from airplanes that strafed the neighborhood.

In mid-1997 I finally decided that Mr. Khamsi wasn’t going to renew my contract, even though he never actually said one way or the other, but I got an offer from a U.S. company that was setting up shop on the eastern edge of the country – basically to do the same thing I had been doing, at about the same rate of pay, and with the same set of benefits such as housing and transportation.

I moved across the country, bag and baggage. Since Venezuela is only about the size of Texas, this may not sound like much, but it usually took about 12 hours to drive the 300 miles from Caracas to Puerto La Cruz – a city on the coast in the eastern part of the country. From there, you had to take a ferry or a plane to Isla de Margarita, which is where the new company decided to set up headquarters.

Four or five of us set up shop in the Margarita Dynasty hotel – just across an empty field from the Hilton hotel, and for several months, that was home. We planned and started a whole new cable company while sitting around the pool, or in someone’s room with the A/C cranked high, watching the condensation run down the sliding glass doors.

There were two or three fairly decent restaurants near the hotel, including a little french bistro that we often frequented – eating at small tables on the sidewalk, with the waiters mixing the salad dressing table-side – usually a complete meal was under $5.

Later it was decided that I should decamp to the city of Puerto La Cruz where I was to rent warehouse facilities and get us started in several other remote towns in the eastern side of the country.

I ended up renting an apartment in Puerto La Cruz, just off Calle Los Flores, near Avinida 5 de Julio. I shared this with my good friend David and his husband Leno. David also worked for the company as an accountant, and Leno took care of the cooking and shopping and cleaning. My Mom came to visit over Christmas of 1996 and had a grand time, although I’m not sure what she thought of David and Leno.

I’d start each morning early, around 5am and drive to the airport in Barcelona – the next town over, where I would catch a plane to the island in time for a daily staff meeting. I’d then dash back to the airport, catch another plane to whatever town I was working on for that day – Cumana, Maturin, Ciudad Guyana, Barcelona or back to Puerta La Cruz.  Ciudad Guyana was pretty far to the south, not far from the border with Guyana and Brazil, but was a “new” town with wide avenues, lots of tall apartment buildings and nice shopping. I bought a nice watch there that I still use today. It was my job to establish warehouse and office facilities in all the places so we could begin operations. My spanish was awful, but it was better than anyone else on the team, and at least I wasn’t afraid to try and use it.

Sometime late in 1996 or early 1997 it was decided that I should move back to Porlamar, the capital city on the island of Margarita – and for a few months I had a great little apartment on the 10th floor of a building that overlooked the ocean. I shared this with my friend Kelly Veleyas, and later ended up in a different place with David and Leno once again – which is where I stayed until Unitedcable decided to sell the business to Supercable and I was once again unemployed. This happened in 1998 – I believe I left Venezuela for good in late summer – just before Hugo Chavez was elected President at the end of the year.

My memories of Venezuela are great. I made good friends, I had a grand time – probably because I was paid in U.S. dollars and by any standard of any Venezuelan locality, was wealthy. But, the locals, no matter their status all had access to decent health care, the hospitals were staffed and had supplies, and there were markets everywhere that were stuffed with food, both imported and locally produced and no one starved.

It’s a far cry from the Venezuela I knew of the mid to late 1990’s to the cesspool it has become. Some twenty years of rule by despots who have stripped the country of all it’s resources for their own personal gain have made the day to day life of your average Venezuelan nothing but misery.

The stores have no food, there are long lines for what resources are available, and babies are dying in their mothers arms for lack of medicine and food.

Venezuela is a three hour flight southwest of Miami. It takes about the same amount of time to fly from Miami to Caracas as it does to fly from Miami to Denver or Chicago. We think of it as a far away place, but it’s only 1500 miles away – closer than our most distant coast.

I have nothing but good wishes for the people of Venezuela and I hope that they find a way to prosperity once again.

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