Fortunately, we managed to pull it together and make it in time to see Hugo Chavez's entourage and the rally that led up to one of his long-winded speeches. But no matter how long Chavez stands at the pulpit and talks about his political philosophy, his followers always seem to be asking for more.
We were fast waking up to something we hadn't felt before as we battled Bush day in and day out in North America: revolutionary hope, Bolivarian style. And we hadn't even had our first sips of Venezuelan coffee yet.
From there we traveled southwest by subway and bus to Caricuao with baseball aficionado Cesar Rengel, an activist and organizer with the Bolivarian Revolutionary group Frente Francisco de Miranda. Rengel was our guide and translator to the Missions, the hugely popular anti-poverty and social welfare programs instituted throughout the country by the Chavez government. We proceeded first to a modern full-service medical clinic, Clinica Popular Caricuao. The lines were long and doctors were extremely busy when we arrived, so we spoke to a patient waiting for service. Zulay, a raven-haired, middle-aged woman, dressed in a tank top with track pants and baby blue sneakers attested to the improvements in medical care under the administration of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. She said that the clinic was staffed with 60-70 doctors and provided medical care without charge for Venezuelans. To alleviate the waiting times, a new clinic is being erected nearby which will be staffed by Venezuelan and Cuban physicians. The Cuban doctors, we were told, are a temporary measure until Venezuela has enough of their own to staff the clinics.
Close by the medical clinic under construction is a government mercal (store), Mercado de Alimentos. Lisbeth l. Pineda is the administrative assistant at the mercal with 13 employees. Pineda, sporting in a comfortable gray sweatshirt and jeans, is also pursuing a college degree at one of the Bolivarian universities, created by the Chavez government to do away with illiteracy and make education available for all, something people of impoverished background were previously unable to do. She proudly showed us her university ID card, all the while glowing with a smile that could melt steel. To us, that proud smile neatly symbolizes the sentiment of the Venezuelan masses: a sense of pride that comes in benefiting from and contributing to something revolutionary and life-affirming.
Many such missions were dispersed throughout the region. Pineda averred, however, that the mercals, although in competition with local shops, had not affected small business appreciably.
Pineda led us downstairs to where low-cost pharmaceuticals were also sold. Dayana Rosario runs the pharmacy in this Mercal where she showed a variety of Venezuelan and imported drugs for assorted maladies, including contraception.
While strolling outside, Rengel said that the changes in Caricuao have been substantial: "In two years everything has changed." He pointed out how the low-cost housing has been and is being upgraded. The new coats of paint that have been applied to the high-rise complexes, which appear to have never been painted before, were very apparent.
Rengel brought us to an unassuming building where we ascended to the fifteenth floor apartment of a vivacious revolutionary matriarch, Nancy de Ramon. Her passion for the revolution and Chavez were readily apparent. She beamed as she displayed a Chavez photo set in a heart-shaped frame. She also showed a Christmas card adorning Chavez.
Like so many other Venezuelans we met, Nancy said the people were happier under Chavez government because significant changes were being made to their daily lives. She extolled the country's president. Chortled de Ramona, "Chavez has four balls. He has the balls of [turn-of-the-eighteenth-century revolutionary leader] Simón Bolívar's horse and his own balls."
When asked what she thought of George Bush's nut sack, she indicated clearly by the downward crushing motion of a clenched fist into the flat palm of the other hand.
Torres sees Chávez as key to the entrenchment and expansion of the missions. "If Chavez is removed from power, the social improvements might end" fears Torres.
A man selling frozen treats in front of the mission was interested to share his thoughts in broken English. Gustavo Gottberg, who describes himself as a writer of mixed German-indigenous descent, is more optimistic about the social changes happening: "If Chávez [is] dead, there are too many people who have learned [about the revolution for it to end]."