Caracas then: capital and largest city of South America's most politically dangerous country: Venezuela. Caracas is also widely believed to be the most dangerous city in South America, and as we all know, that's up against some pretty stiff competition. The thing with Venezuela is that it's all about the politics - even my flatmate where I was staying had political reasons for being there, on which more in a bit- of which the three main pillars are the following (in ascending order):
1) Socialism and how great it is.
2) Hugo Chavez
3) Simon Bolivar
Venezuela shocked me slightly when I first arrived. Even in the immigration hall - where I had to queue for a good hour and a half - had huge posters advertising the benefits of Chavez's socialism. We were told how "over a million Venezuelans had benefited from the government's education programme" and how "40,000 children had moved above the poverty line" thanks to socialism. Going from the airport to the centre of Caracas provided me with an endless stream of political propaganda. Everywhere I looked there was a billboard proclaiming how wonderful various things were, ranging from Simon Bolivar to the percentage by which milk production has increased (1220% in case you were wondering). The propaganda highlight was an enormous billboard which must have been more than 100 metres in length simply saying "Let's work!". Brilliant, Chavez, just brilliant.
I'm aware that for people who have visited countries which don't have similar styles of government to our own, this may not seem that extraordinary, but for me it was rather intriguing.
At the risk of sending some readers to sleep, I'm going to continue on the political path by talking about Hugo Chavez, the slightly insane Venezuelan president. He seems to have built up a slight cult of personality, similar to that of Stalin, albeit not on the same scale. Many people see him as a great leader and the man to turn Venezuela into a world force. Others dislike him immensely and completely disagree with his policies. This latter group, however, will very rarely criticise Chavez publicly. According to a Venezuelan university professor to whom I spoke, the fear of expropriation is a constant threat. One wrong word against Chavez, and you lose your land quicker than you can say "socialist c***". For this reason, many choose to let Chavez know how he isn't wrong, it's his ministers who have given him bad advice and they should be blamed. Not him, not Chavez.
Sadly, he hasn't really justified his methods or the near-fanatical support of many of his followers. Peru, which was widely perceived as a joke country, run by 'indians', has overtaken Venezuela in terms of GDP. Where Venezuela was near the top of this particular South American league table, it now languishes behind many of its competitors and inflation is relatively rampant, hovering at around 30%.
In an attempt to combat said inflation, Venezuela has an official exchange rate for its currency. This rate is 2.15 Bolivares for every U.S. Dollar. There is also a whole black market of currency exchanging, with rates offered being between 3 and 9 Bolivares to the Dollar. Now not being a complete moron, I opted for some slightly illegal and sexually arousing black market exchange action, netting me rate of 7 Bolivares to the Dollar. 7, compared to 2.15. No wonder the country's economy would be buggered without its oil reserves. Venezuelan people are forced to pay more than three times as much for things as foreigners using the black market (when relative value in Dollars is calculated).
And this shows on the women. Venezuela has produced more beauty queens than any other country in the world (even more than Uruguay!) and you can see why. However, the often stunning beauty of female Venezuelans is very much undermined by their seeming inability to wear clothes that fit them or look at all good. Further hampering my shallow interests was the fact that 9 out of 10 Venezuelans seem to be wearing dental braces. Imagine a gorgeous, dark-skinned, hispanic girl with lovely hair and everything. Now add some baby pink braces. Now dress her in a boy's tracksuit which is unwashed. That's a Venezuelan woman. I honestly believe Venezuelans would rank higher than Uruguayans if it weren't for these drawbacks, but drawbacks they were.
I must say, however, that Venezuelans have rhythm. I went to a salsa bar with my flatmate one evening and it was a great sight. No, not in that way. I was immensely cheered to see how everyone was dancing, all in pairs as well: anyone standing near the dancefloor was immediately invited to a dance. It was impossible not to feel like a loser in this place (insert joke about me being a loser here). It wasn't drunken dancing either: it was just through the sheer enjoyment of dancing and music that people were in there; not to get drunk like we would in the UK. Imagine a place in Britain where alcohol is served and people go to dance, without feeling at all self-conscious. No? Me neither.
Salsa a la Venezolana
The flatmate in question was a fellow from New Zealand. He was a huge conspiracy theorist (that's not to say he was fat, I just meant he was convinced by various conspi... oh it doesn't matter, let's get back to the blog), who remains certain that there will be a huge global period of hyperinflation and that corporations are taking over the world. He has a point I suppose... He was in Venezuela as a political refugee, having fled with his family - who temporarily reside in California - following various trials at which he refused to accept the court's authority. For a similar case in the British arena, Google "Birkenhead judge arrest". He actually had his original arrest on video, which he showed me, and let's just say I can see why he might have fled New Zealand, a country which is supposed to be liberal and safe. On the video, he seen being beaten rather savagely by 2 'Crown Constables', or policeman to the layperson, for no apparent reason other than he was being a bit difficult to arrest. He was very adamant about his political beliefs, and actually aims to establish a political party in New Zealand and has grand plans about meeting Chavez and getting his support. I'm aware none of this has anything to do with Venezuela, but it was an interesting experience I wished to share, alright?
So back to Caracas. The city itself is only remarkable for its total unremarkability. It has no well-known landmarks, or even much to do. There's a mountain overlooking the city, but even the views from there are fairly mundane. There's no real pleasant architecture to of which to speak either. Caracas does hold the honour of being the birthplace of one Simon Bolivar.
Simon Bolivar is a South American hero. In fact, in Venezuela, he occupies a position in people's estimation just below God. He is the man responsible for liberating vast swathes of South America from the Spanish in the early 19th century. Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Bolivia (named after him) and Venezuela all owe their existence directly to Bolivar. Everywhere you look in Caracas are pictures of the great man. Hugo Chavez actually changed the name of the country to incorporate his great love for Bolivar. Venezuela is officially known as La Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela, and the government seems to stick the adjective Bolivariano in at every opportunity.
One of the many monuments to Bolivar. The text reads " If nature is against us, we shall fight it, and make it obey." Inspiring stuff... for someone... probably.
So having diced with politics and the differences between Common Law and Admiralty Law, a topic I still don't remotely understand, I decided to leave South America. I haven't gone far though, I've just nipped across the Caribbean to Trinidad and Tobago. Let's just say that the words "incredibly different" are insufficient for the next chapter in my voyage...
Until next time, and please, don't have nightmares.