I”m reading a book called Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens: A Couchsurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela by a young English writer named Jamie Maslin. The facts he presents by visiting so many people there have completely changed my opinion of a man who I once thought of as a force for evil–Hugo Chavez.
Maslin visits crime-filled Caracas, the island of Margarita, and the oil epicenter of Maracaibo and each time finds a couch or a bed to sleep on using the lodging website couchsurfing.com. Each time he asks his hosts what they think of their president. He presents a portrait of this vast, untamed country and in fact, most of them do like Chavez, yet have their gripes as well.
In one city a squadron of nurses goes house to house, checking to see if they can be of service to residents, and whether they need to go to one of the thousands of free clinics. Others talk about how the government uses oil funds to pay for cut rate home loans and lending to people who want to start small businesses. Another talks about how Chavez took his oil-rich country’s money out of the World Bank, which makes enormous interest by transferring high interest loans using low interest funds. He has spent billions to help the majority–the poor–and so the rich hate him, and the middle, well, they understand.
What Chavez has done, the book shows, is to direct oil money to the 80 percent of the people who have never had any money, instead of to its traditional recipients–a tiny handful of families and multinational corporations. These actions infuriated the US and that’s why in 2004 we helped to try and overthrow him. Yet he’s won five elections and his guards remained loyal, so after 46 hours he was back in the palace.