South American Generals and Uniforms and Sunglasses and Tailored Italian Suits: Trying to Make Squares out of Circles

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During the intoxicatedly, capitalistically-maverick democratic years (1974-1982) when some Venezuelans binged on the lucre culled from the exorbitantly high prices of their liquid gold, I curried favor in an affinity with one of Accion Democratica’s most highly-puffed ministers and overseer of Venezuela’s Ministerio del Ambiente y de los Recursos Naturales Renovables. My job for him was to translate, to correct old speeches penned in English, and to help write new ones. Just as two other ministers I knew before him had done, he too slipped me, under the table, freshly-printed bolivares-paper without much value…any longer.

Venezuela was in the pink of graft and corruption and Caracas was their capital. A time when all-except Venezuela’s poor-were drunk on spending and buying. All you needed was a telephone, a telex, and a rented room-your mini “office.” People were importing and exporting unrestrainably. Whisky, cars, electronic equipment, clothes-even two snowplows! If you named it, you could buy it. Venezuelans were so rich, they qualified to take out billion dollar loans in the United States and Europe which they still have not been able to pay back. The feverishness was so overstated, my friend Fernando, a government official, came running into my office one morning at the Ministerio de Informacion y Turismo brandishing a copy of El Nacional with the new, higher posting of a barrel of Venezuelan petroleum, and blurted out-his eyes flooded with tears-for all, including me, within ten kilometers, this Spanish squawk: “We’re going to fuck you gringos for good!” Fernando could not forgive and forget-as millions of his compatriots-the decades of exploitation suffered under the thumb of foreign oil companies. His hate was such that when I asked him, to calm him down, how he was going to go about “fucking” the gringos, he retorted: “We don’t know yet, but you can be sure we’ll do it, gringo!” Little did we know, at that time, a Hollywoodish actor was waiting in the wings of the White House soon to play his most important part, soon to bring down the curtain on the Venezuelan bacchanalia of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Our leading man, the minister, came from a very well-to-do Venezuelan family, and was a Central Stupidity Agency’s dream: He had been brainwashed at a United States’ university, wanted all Venezuelans to vote their brains out, and was as Roman Catholic (Opus Dei?) as the United States Navy. Before he set out for Stanford University to study for a Master of Science in hydraulic engineering, he had frequented posh private schools run by the Jesuits in Caracas. (Stendhal: “Herein lies the crowning achievement of a Jesuitical education; the formation of a habit of paying no attention to those things which are clearer than daylight.”) He also had received training at the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the University of Manchester in England. He was part of that Venezuelan upper crust very far removed from the heartbreaking poverty that most Venezuelans were beleaguered with. As we shall see, he had a grandiose blueprint to save his people from their despondency.

His curriculum vitae, eight jam-packed pages, includes eight awards and decorations; fifteen professional and teaching experiences; ten ad honorem titles; membership in five professional societies; attendance at twelve international meetings; the publication of twenty seven scientific papers; and, three books dealing with water resources in his Venezuela. All his life had to do with hydraulic engineering and all things connected with it. His C.V. defines him so: An in toto hydraulic engineer. How he got to be minister, is anyone’s guess. In the C.V. there is not one reference to his party, Accion Democratica! So far, so good.

Taking into account some of the speeches he had me compose for him, we get more than an inkling into his thinking. Our political plumber wants to flood Venezuela with a new social order based on the earnings his country derives from petroleum, iron and diamonds-those riches his ministry “watches over and protects” for the Venezuelan people! He has a mission and he is glowing with determination. He wants to make radical transubstantiations as they say at Mass time. He wants to lead his people to a new way of life. (Presidential timber? You bet!)

The minister, the zealot, in one of his speeches not seventeen pages long, guides me to make him gurgle the nomenclature of the Nazi Party: decrees, regulations, measures, frameworks, plans, policies, guidelines, controls, strategies, techniques, schemes, priorities, plans of action, massive approaches, surveillances, applications of sanctions, zonal directorships, training efforts, environmental wardenships, ad nauseam. He wants to regulate all thirteen million of his people who in 1977 have an annual per capita income of $1,346-the highest in Latin-American! He yearns for a new economic and social order for his poor people “without ignoring our cherished principles of democracy.” Nothing could be sweeter than that to the ears of Langley, Virginia’s government officials-themselves keen on progress and homogenization, always keeping in mind Jeffersonian “pursuits of happiness,” through the vagrancies of presidings over and systematizations.

In effect, the minister’s compulsion is to make of his nation a sort of “universal machine” (Alan Turing, Cambridge fellow) that can perform the function of any other machine provided the right program is fed it. His people are the instruments that will comprise his gigantic social plumbing system. When all is connected correctly, all will flush in harmony. There is never mention of what Venezuelans need most: hospitals, schools, adequate transportation facilities, et cetera. (Ugh! Thank goodness Ronald Reagan came along?)

I never spoke to Carlos Andrés Pérez, but I came to within speaking distance of him six or seven times at governmental functions or in Palacio Miraflores which I could access via my M.I.T. ID card. One time our eyes locked and I held myself from blabbing out this to him: “I’m one of those to whom your staff sends your speeches for correction before they are sent to the printer and the telex machines!”

C.A.P.’s irksomeness was not hydraulic engineering, but a good dose of personal omnipotence and grandeur probably planted in him during his years of exile and then torture generated on account of his muscle-bound political convictions. He might have survived-carried his charade-even farther had he had the good sense to bring, unassumingly, his cause to the Venezuelan people themselves instead of resorting, self-importantly, to pan-Central and -South American political alliances; instead of referring to the political ideals of such illustrious statesmen as Roosevelt, Churchill and Kennedy who were considered gringos by his people; and, had he stayed far away from the United Nations General Assembly where in a brilliant speech, “A New Economic Order is Essential for World Peace,” delivered 16 November 1976, he zeroed in so well on what was really happening in Western Hemispheric Machiavellianism, you could just sense his demise was in the making. In New York that day, C.A.P. let fly and accused the United Nations of being manipulated or governed by those industrialized nations which retain the power of decision; by saying that international hypocrisy has a name: Aid; by reminding all in the hall that for centuries Venezuela had been enraptured by powerful nations which gave Venezuelans many long words along with many trinkets; and, by prognosticating that the United Nations was doomed to failure if it continued to be used only when the great powers deemed it appropriate. In those days, there were two “loose cannons” on the North American-South American political battlefield: Jimmy Carter (“President Pérez has become one of my personal, best friends.”) and Carlos Andrés Pérez. Jimmy was spineless; C.A.P. was cruel. My lawyer friend Ramon, son of one of C.A.P.’s arch-rivals for the presidency of Venezuela, told me several times: “C.A.P. is a megalomaniac, a thief, and a murderer. He also sniffs cocaine!” Both Carter and Pérez-the latter gave lip service to the former when they dawdled about what to think about the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries-would be shot down by that Californian cowboy intent on beating down those high petroleum prices.

C.A.P. blew it. He cannot be defended. Yet it must be said that on what was the Venezuelan political scene at the time, no one could have expected him to be “red, white and blue” perfect. C.A.P. wanted to present his cause to the international community. He felt frustrated politically in Venezuela. And with the ideas he had, he knew he was fighting against the oligarchic grain of the Washington-Caracas connection and he could not count on help from his neighbors to the north-especially two-faced peanut farmers.

The pressure groups in Venezuela, always conniving with the United States’ Embassy, did all they could to put up with C.A.P. Washington “biggies,” such as Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, came to Caracas to give “Invitation Only” conferences and to solidify their economic bases. All hoped secretly that C.A.P. would turn out to be a “Vote and Go to Church” supporter of democracy, and not the leftist kook that he was. What did they care about what was going on in Caracas’s Petare jail? What they did care about loan money-destined for Venezuela’s destitute population-finding its way to Miami banks and luxurious waterfront condominiums? C.A.P. was a rascal, for sure; but, he touched the nerves of those profiting preposterously from Venezuela’s natural resources. It would be my friend’s father, confidente of Maragaret Thatcher, David Rockefeller, the obnoxious Henry Kissinger, Harvard University political science professors, et alia, who-as Ministro de Justicia later on-would level the final, fatal blow against C.A.P., the Venezuelan Fidel Castro.

Washington, D.C. 28 June 1977. EXCHANGE OF TOASTS BY PRESIDENTS CARTER AND PEREZ AT THE WHITE HOUSE STATE DINNER…

Jimmy, our bon vivant, slimes all over the White House rug. There are (LAUGHTER)’s, (APPLAUSE)’s and (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)’s dotted all over my copy of his toast script. Jimmy is a cocktail party stand-up cornball. (“I thought about the cartoon I saw, I think in the Milwaukee paper, which showed me talking to Jody Powell, my press secretary, Mr President (“Carlos”), I was saying: ‘Jody, I don’t give a damn about Idi Amin; where is Rosalynn?'” (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE). Further: “We have a chance to learn about one another…We share a great deal…Venezuela’s representative (sic!) is a man who epitomizes the finest aspects of our country’s hopes and dreams and aspirations and ideals…” Ad nauseam…

Then this seemingly impossible pronouncement: “For nineteen years now, there has been an absolute, total and pure democracy in Venezuela.” Quod erat demonstrandum: “Everyone is privileged to vote and is urged to vote. The decisions of the people on election day are binding and without question.” Only a nincompoop or a false friend could be so soulless. The President of the United States of America an idiot? Impossible! A liar? Gulp! Jimmy has categorically passed his adjudication upon the state of affairs in Venezuela. Nothing could be further from his “truth.”

Now comes C.A.P.’s turn to clink White House glassware. Only one (APPLAUSE)! No (LAUGHTER)’s; no (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)’s. Listen to C.A.P.: “…the United States can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace from the global issues of justice, equality, and human rights…But we also believe that the Latin-American dictatorships have a reason for their existence because of the economic instability generated by the unjust economic order in the world…You, Mr. President (“Jimmy”), with real vision, have begun to speak another language. Without expressly saying it, you have come to realize that selfishness has presided until now over the tepid conduct of the great nations…The technological civilization which exists today, could well be called, unfortunately, the civilization of waste…Exploitation cannot continue in its present mode giving more and more to the industrialized countries thus maintaining irritating levels of waste and consumption…At this friendly dinner with so many kind people in attendance, I have referred to fundamental aspects that commit nations and governments to the creation of a new world order, just and equitable…We want a democracy which will serve high ethical standards and humanistic principles. With that trust, Mr President, Mrs Carter, I propose a toast to the success of just and noble ideals, to the great nation of the United States, and to democracy in the Western Hemisphere.”

Where did C.A.P. get those ideas? From Marx? From Engels? From a freelance cocaine-sniffing White House speechwriter? Did he actually believe that President Carter-up for re-election one day-would pander to the citizens of the United States to suffer higher gasoline prices to oblige Carlos Andrés Pérez’s ideal of a new economic order that should impose a code “that regulates the actions of transnational companies which have weakened and usurped the national sovereignty of the developing countries and have deeply eroded morals by a systematic use of bribery?” Listen to what Jimmy Carter says to C.A.P. after the Venezuelan tough guy has turned the stomachs of all in the White House dining room: “PRESIDENT CARTER: Thank you very much.”

My friend Nicola, son of a Tuscan clothes designer, was in Caracas in late 1996 and he told me he never left the Caracas Hilton during his three-day stay for fear of the Caraquenos. In the 29 October 1994 issue of The Economist: “Caracas’s 4m people have generated 200 killings a month this year…Youths killed for designer sports shoes…Around 60% of Caracas’s population lives in the barrios (slums)…Venezuela is sitting on a “social bomb”…Real income has been falling for 17 years…The bloody riots of 1989 claimed 2,000 dead in the crackdown…” When I left Caracas in 1983, about seven bolivares bought a dollar. The Union Bank of Switzerland’s Global Economic Outlook for the third quarter (Q3) 1997 predicts a 1998 dollar at 690 bolivares. The perfect ambience for a military dictatorship-in the most expensive Italian business suits, naturally!

Mr. Anthony St. John, a New Yorker, contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Italy.

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