M By Brian Reichert
ERIDA – Before arriving in this vibrant South American town, I – like most everybody else – had assumptions about what the people and culture would be like. Most of all, I felt blind to the cultural differences I might encounter.
I was sitting in a cafe one afternoon having a drink when a waitress of African descent informed me that if I needed anything, I should simply call out for “la negra” (“the black,” in a literal translation). I was taken back. I thought there was no way she could be serious. How could I simply refer to this woman by the color of her skin, let alone yell it out in a bar? It was against everything I had ever believed about respect. A Venezuelan friend assured me that referring to her in this manner was a common practice here and is not taken in any derogatory way.
After further investigation, I found the idea of racism and prejudice practically nonexistent in Venezuela. This is mostly due to a great blend of ethnicities and diverse cultural backgrounds. However, there is animosity here, and it lies among the social classes.
In the past 10 years, the lower class of Venezuela has been pitted fiercely against the smaller upper class. The tension stems in part from a poor economy and the implementation of President Hugo Chavez’s communist agenda.
Before Chavez came into power in 1998, the Venezuelan economy was in shambles. Chavez won the election by promising a great revolution and an economic turnaround. He neglected to inform the public, however, that his government plans tended toward socialism. In practice, Chavez’s policies have generally failed and animosity has grown. The economy remains in shambles.
Many Venezuelans have been fed the idea that those with money have taken it from them and that they owe everything they have worked for to the people of the lower class. For example, one recent law said if one family owns a piece of land and is only using 30 percent for production, the remaining 70 percent can be taken by the government and given to anyone who wants it. This practice has outraged landowners, especially when their land was obtained through the sweat and hard work of their ancestors many years ago.
Chavez has also managed to increase a national sales tax to 16 percent on almost everything from homes and cars to some food and clothing. Right now, approximately 70 percent of Venezuelans are earning around 190,000 bolivares a month. In Venuezuela, it costs approximately 800,000 bolivares per month for a home and to feed and clothe a family. At the same time, the money from taxes is not being returned to the people. The public services are a joke. The national health care system – with workers striking for the past several months – often only has the resources to treat emergencies.
So while some sleep in gutters and roadsides selling contraband just to get by, Chavez buys a new fleet of cars, bullet-proof suits, a new yacht and beefs up his military. Where that money comes from, Venezuelans can only guess.