Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is having a state funeral today, being buried in the red beret and green army uniform he came into power with fourteen years ago. He won’t really be buried. Instead, his body will be “embalmed like Lenin” and displayed in a glass case for “eternity,” perhaps in his recently built New Museum of the Revolution, or in the new $60 million Mausoleum for Simon Bolivar.
The first time I visited Venezuela was in August 1999, during Chavez’s first year of presidency. He had publicly vowed to end poverty and homelessness—a laudable if impossible goal. I spent a month in Venezuela, first in the mega-city Caracas and then in the agricultural state of Yaracuy. It was there that I found myself wearing a red shirt and being interviewed on TV and by newspaper reporters about the situation of homeless youth in the U.S. I was asked to give a public talk on reproductive health of homeless young women at the local university. My talk was sponsored by the federal Ministry of Families social services agency. The shortened title of my talk became “Infancia Abandonada,” literally translated as abandoned children. There were about fifty people in attendance, with the front two rows occupied by the Venezuelan military in their red berets and gold braid and tassels. It was an interesting cross-cultural immersion experience. Even at the time I realized I was a political pawn in the grand chess game of inter-American relations. They wanted me to highlight how a rich (and arrogant) country like ours can have such a large homeless population, including abandoned children living on our nation’s streets.
The public health and nursing schools located in Yaracuy wanted to establish research ties through me with the university in the U.S. where I work. But since their university was state-run and Chavez became increasingly anti-U.S., those research ties had to be undone. I’ve returned to Venezuela twice since my first visit. On my most recent visit in 2010, it was a vastly different country: rolling electricity blackouts, water stoppages, food shortages and rationing of even basic staples like corneal, and major roads almost impassable by lack of maintenance. There was also a palpable level of anxiety and dis-ease among the Venezuelans, especially in Caracas but also noticeable in other areas of the country I visited. The only other country I have ever been in where I felt a similar level of dis-ease was in the military-run Burma/Myanmar. While poverty levels have reportedly been lowered during Chavez’s fourteen years in office, I was left wondering who exactly was measuring this and how they were measuring it. I was left wondering if there aren’t much worse things than poverty and homelessness….