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A Caracas Romance
Wolves and Revolution in Venezuela
by DOUGLAS VALENTINE

"Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the lined know what any of it is worth."

Bob Dylan, All Along The Watchtower

I’m no celebrity, and definitely not accustomed to special treatment. But for some strange reason, I was invited to the Defense of Humanity Conference hosted by President Hugo Chavez Frias in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government paid my airfare, and my room and board at the Hilton Hotel in Caracas, where, over four days in early December, some two hundred "artists and intellectuals" from forty nations met to form a strategy to save the world from George W. Bush.

Wow.

Like I said, I have no idea why I was invited to this big event. No one I know, personally, was invited either. I knew there were to be ten "tables of discussion" and that my job was to sit at Table 10: Defense of the Peace, on Thursday and Saturday. On Friday I was to hook up with some other "artists and intellectuals" and tour six or seven places where Chavez and his political action cadre, with a helping hand from Fidel Castro and the Cubans, were improving the lives of poor people in the countryside. I was also invited to some other events, including a dinner Saturday night with President Chavez (I presume at the Palace), and a Plenary Session on Sunday to formalize the strategy.

I decided to get there early and when I arrived on Monday, a political cadre was waiting for me at the American Airlines gate. She greeted me warmly, and ushered me through Immigration and Customs to a van outside. Two security guards accompanied me, alone, to the Hilton Hotel in Caracas. I don’t speak Spanish and they didn’t have any English, so we drove in silence for forty-five minutes. Along the way, I gazed at the scenery. It was raining so hard that I was afraid that the shantytowns ­ the red-orange cinderblock houses stacked one on top of the other against the steep forested hills ­ might wash away.

They didn’t wash away. But, as I would later learn, they have washed away in the past. And, if Bush, the Israelis, and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie have their way, a wave of mighty US Marines will wash them away again.

More about that later. First let me say that Venezuela, under Chavez, is a country of contradictions. On the one hand, seventy percent of the people live in poverty; on the other, there’s enough oil money to wine and dine two hundred artists and intellectuals who can’t decide what to order for lunch, let alone save the world.

Not only are there contradictions in Venezuela; there is an air of unreality, and a visceral sense of desperation.

Faced with this predicament, I did what any misfit writer would do. I went to the beach with a beautiful Russian woman. No, I won’t tell her name, but (as my devoted wife knows), it was her idea and I went along for the ride. I came down to breakfast that morning, overheard her speaking English, and asked if I could join her. She looked up from a huge plate of scrambled eggs, fruits and bread, and said, "Okay." She went back to eating while I sipped a cup of café and nibbled a croissant. A few minutes later she pushed her plate away and announced, in her soft, lyrical, lilting Russian voice, "I want to go to beach today. You come too."

Okay!

Let’s call her Gala. Gala is tall and slim with great posture, high-heeled sandals and long legs, a devilish grin, wild flaxen hair, and wide sparkling eyes. She arrived in the lobby looking cool, dressed in tight denim jeans and possessed of remarkable self-assurance. Every eye in the place was on her. Later, when I asked why she invited me, she said slowly, sweetly, "You are convenient and flexible man."

That’s me.

It was Wednesday, and I could have stuck around and gawked at the radical chic celebrities drifting into the Hilton. But the lure of a trip with Gala to the Caribbean was irresistible. The political cadre didn’t mind. Then again, we didn’t ask permission. So off we went.

Our adventure was made more exciting by two things: 1) neither of us spoke Spanish, so we weren’t able to give our driver directions, and 2) we didn’t know where the hell we were going. Basically, we were just driving east of Caracas, along the coast, looking for a nice beach. Along the way we stopped in little coastal villages, sometimes to get our bearings, sometimes to eat and drink, once so I could buy a floppy bush hat (Gala belly laughed at how ridiculous I looked) and sun block. Everywhere we went, the Venezuelans were great.

I love Venezuelans.

It was a gorgeous day, a little breezy, and after about an hour and a half, we arrived at Pantaleta. The village of Pantaleta is memorable because its sidewalk market stalls boldly display women’s panties. Gala and I are both naïve, and we assumed that women’s panties were the local product, and went on our merry way to the beach. We paid for parking, and I gave our driver a ten-dollar bill so he could go have a nice long leisurely three-hour lunch. We rented two beach chairs under an awning from a shabby Venezuelan man who had the franchise for a fifty-foot stretch of beach. We modestly changed into our bathing suits, and dove happily into the crashing, eight-foot tall waves.

Thank you, President Chavez.

It was a weekday, so we pretty much had the beach to ourselves. The sky was Dali blue, with a few high clouds. I went back to sit by our belongings and watch Gala frolic child-like in the surf. In a while I was joined by a black Labrador retriever and a few minutes later I was joined by his owner, Sabrina, a lovely young Venezuelan woman from Caracas. Sabrina shyly introduced herself and knelt beside me. She was spending this delightful day at the beach with her husband, William. He was about a hundred feet down the beach, standing with his hands on his hips, anxiously looking up at us. She said they were better off than most Venezuelans. William worked for a TV station and Sabrina did graphic design. They were better off than most, but they could not afford to buy both a house and a car. That was the big decision in their lives: a house or a car.

As a middle-class American, I could sympathize. Gala came out of the water, dripping wet, and joined us. I explained Sabrina’s situation, and Gala gave me a disapproving look as she stood there, unabashedly toweling off her long white legs and wild hair. As a mature Russian woman who had lived through the original "socialist paradise", Gala did not empathize with pretty young Sabrina. She didn’t say so there and then, because she is wise, as well as beautiful. But Gala is very taken with Chavez and his vision. She understood, at the time, better than I, the mortal danger Sabrina’s attitude poses to Chavez and his social reforms.

Gala later explained that she had met Chavez in Russia, several months before, at an event her high-powered organization had sponsored. She was the moderator, sitting beside Chavez, and some lunatic Russian had pushed passed security to the front row. The man reached inside his coat pocket to pull out some letters ­ not a gun ­ he wanted to hand Chavez. Gala had boldly stood up and told him that he was out of line and would have to wait his turn. When she sat back down, Chavez whispered in her ear, "You have a flame inside."

Gala blushed. "He wanted chance to say nice thing," she said sotto voce. But I could tell she believed in him, wholeheartedly. Her idealism played off my skepticism, which, I suppose, is one reason why we made such a good team.

Sabrina and her dog Picasso knew nothing of "the Encounter" being hosted by Chavez, or the radical political reason Gala and I were there. Sabrina talked economics, because the economy is a pressing concern wherever one goes in Venezuela. Sabrina was being herself, open and warm, like Venezuelans tend to be. She graciously gave us her telephone number and invited us to dinner. But the great Chavez was giving a speech that evening, so Gala gave me "the look" and I said thanks, maybe. Sabrina went back to her nervous husband, and Gala told me fabulous stories about the Tatars in 14th Century Russia, about superstition and magic, and about the mysterious ways of the universe.

We took a last languid walk along the golden sand. Gala climbed out on a stone jetty. I had to gallantly go out, take her hand, and help her cross the jagged rocks. We lingered on our way back to our chairs. It was late afternoon, time to return to the hotel. We stood and modestly changed clothes, looked wistfully at the sea and the lush green hills behind us, which, to my surprise, were devoid of the cinderblock houses of the poor.

Gala liked me by then. I was not just "convenient and flexible man" anymore. On the way back, I sat in the corner in the backseat, leaning against the door. Gala was tired from jet lag, swimming and lively conversation. She laid her head back on the seat, looking up contentedly. Then she turned and gazed over a soft shoulder at me. My eyes must have said okay. She may have snuggled close against my arm, laid her head on my shoulder, and gone to sleep. It could have happened that way.

I do remember looking north out the car window, at a string of deserted apartment and office buildings, and relatively new seaside resorts, along the beach. I wondered why they were empty.

As we got nearer to Caracas, I once again saw the burnt-orange cinderblock houses of the poor were stacked precariously against the steep green hills to the south.

 

In This Corner, Representing The Oppressed, Hugo Chavez Frias!

Back at the Hilton, I went to my room and Gala went to hers. We changed into our evening clothes, and met in the lobby. She looked great in a long sleek dress and high heels. The festivities had begun at the auditorium across the street, but Gala and I were starving, so we rushed to the hotel banquet hall for something quick to eat. Then we hurried over to the auditorium to hear Chavez give his speech. (On the way over, Gala leaned against my arm. She smiled devilishly and whispered in my ear, "I am famous woman here." Her boss had arrived that day, and the first thing he had said to her was, "I hear you have been to the beach.")

Gala and I must have been the last people to arrive, but we were famous by now, and one of the young Venezuelan production crew (not political action cadre, but bi-lingual students hired from the university to help the "artists and intellectuals") eagerly found us two seats together. The seats were at the top of the lower section, near a door that opened onto the aisle that divided the upper and lower halves of the auditorium. We barely had time to sit down when the door flew open and out came Chavez and his entourage.

The place went wild.

Chavez and his dark curvaceous translator, menacing bodyguards, and rock and roll media ensemble passed so close we could have reached over the railing and taken his hand. People surged and swarmed around him. He was working the crowd like a pro, reaching into the seats and hugging and kissing people. Gala had met him before, in Russia, but it was the first time I’d seen the great man in person. He is dark, solidly built, and Indian tough. You know he could take on three muggers in an alley and walk out relaxed. He walked down the center aisle of the auditorium, strode up the stairs of the main aisle, lunged into a row of seats to hug someone he saw, put his hand on the railing below him, vaulted over it, down to the aisle five feet below, in a fantastic athletic move that sent the crowd into pandemonium. He landed like a cat and was off again.

Let’s see that little pendejo Bush do that!

The place was electric, packed and buzzing with excitement as Chavez and his entourage took their seats. The minister of something or other gave a rousing speech. A Mexican professor talked about changing history. Then Chavez took the stage. He told about a Venezuelan prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, who had been assassinated by a car bomb barely two weeks before. Anderson had been on the verge of arresting a number of mercenaries and Venezuelan counter-revolutionaries who had staged an unsuccessful coup in 2002. Chavez told how the CIA and MOSSAD had arranged the coup, and (unlike in Chile in 1973) how the Venezuelan military had backed him. Chavez explained that the prosecutor was about to expose Bush’s blood-soaked hands in the plot.

In the press, the assassination was blamed on some shadowy entity called the Cuban Mafia. Don’t believe what you read in the press. Bush, the MOSSAD, and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie assassinated Anderson. Truth be told, Bush is a mass murderer and the biggest terrorist in the world. If you have any doubts, visit Venezuela.

Chavez is very different than Bush. He’s tough, and he shoots people, yeah. But he fights for the little guy. That’s how he likes to be portrayed. He spoke about the power of love to unite all the different factions in the world, and how love could give us the strength to go on the offensive against Bush and overlords. He was truly inspiring. But like Castro, he doesn’t know when to shut up. The joke among the Venezuelans is that even the Cubans get up and eventually leave a Chavez speech. I was taking notes and wrote on a piece of paper, "Do you want to go?" I handed it to sleepy Gala. She wrote back, "Yes!!"

Luckily the speech ended soon thereafter and we were able to leave without being rude. Back at the hotel, Gala’s Russian boss appeared at her side and whisked her away.

"Maybe I’ll see you around," I said to the space where she had been.

 

The Devil In The Detail

The one thing you can say about Chavez, with total certainty, is that the man knows how to make an entrance. That show-biz quality is not reassuring.

You can also say he talks too long, and fondles his crucifix too often.

He may also be doing some unethical wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, with the likes of Jimmy Carter and Gustavo Cisneros. But there’s a low-intensity war going on, and both sides are resorting to terror. The subject of terrorism is my expertise, and I guess that’s why I was invited to the Encounter.

Inviting me was a big mistake. The Venezuelan and Cuban military men who ran my discussion group, Table 10: Defense of the Peace, turned me off entirely. They were too doctrinaire, too oppressively repetitive, with an agenda that was transparently pre-conceived. Call it, like Gala later did, anti-woman. Whatever you call it, it was awful to have to sit there and listen to the ideologues say the same thing over and over again.

Ancient Ramsay Clark opened our discussion group, spoke for about ten minutes about America being the greatest purveyor of violence ever on earth, and left to go to a court proceeding. After that it was all downhill. I swear to God, if I hear the word solidarity once more, I’ll do what Gary Webb did, God rest his soul.

I stuck it out till lunch and ran back to the banquet hall for something to eat. I sat at a table with a middle-aged American woman from Table 10. She’d been the only person to mention women as victims of male terrorism, which I thought was cool, though the moderators dismissed her remarks as irrelevant. Over lunch she started telling me how much she liked late night American comedians. Something called the Daily Show? Meanwhile a sultry young Venezuelan woman sat down at the table and caught my attention. She was slender and curvaceous, about five foot four, wearing a smart pants suit with a typical, for Venezuelan women, low-cut and revealing blouse. She smiled seductively and looked right in my eyes. I turned back to the American woman and said that I didn’t know much about late night comedians, but the little I heard seemed to trivialize the awful mess America is in.

We were obviously in disagreement on this point, so the American woman left the table rather than get into an argument. I think that’s why she left. As she left, she cast a disapproving glance at the sultry young woman sitting very close beside me.

Over the last twenty years, ever since I started writing about the CIA, I’ve been waiting for the moment when a beautiful spy would attempt to seduce me. It’s become a long-standing joke between my wife and me. How would I react? Would I take the bait?

In this case, yes, I would take the bait.

Was she really a spy? I don’t know. How could I? I do know that over the course of my fifty-five years, not one beautiful young women has ever approached me in this fashion before. So it’s probably safe to assume.

On the other hand, she saw how disgusted I was with the discussion at Table 10. She is an astute observer, and maybe, being one of the "oppositers" (as the Venezuelan bourgeoisie refer to themselves), she thought it might be worthwhile to try to tell me the counter-revolutionary side of the story? Maybe she was just an angry and bold young woman, acting for personal reasons, on her own. That happens too.

She definitely knew I wasn’t with the program. She knew that I had been to the beach with Gala. She asked where we’d gone, and when I told her, she giggled. "Do you know what Pantaleta means?" she asked.

It means women’s underwear. Which explains a lot.

Then she asked if I would like to have a cigarette with her in quiet part of the hotel; and thus began, with one interruption, that intriguing part of my Venezuelan tale of romance and revolution.

I vowed not to reveal her name, so I’ll call her Maria. We sat and talked for over an hour, in general terms, about the mind-numbing discourse at Table 10. Maria was an interpreter: she sat in a paneled box with a window, translating from Spanish into English the inane verbiage that never came close to establishing any new language or ideas about dealing with world terrorism. Maria insisted that Chavez was engaged in terrorism too, cited a few unsubstantiated examples, and offered to tell me more about it.

I’m not a political activist. Everyone else at Table 10 was, in some way, an activist associated with some group or cause. I’m a writer and an investigative reporter beholden to no one and nothing except the principles of telling both sides of the story, and corroborating my facts. Everyone else at Table 10 was content to follow the Party line, except me and two men from India who wanted to insert a clause about the myths the world press perpetuates by constantly using the term "Islamic Terrorism" ­ but the moderators shot them down, too. So I agreed to meet Maria after the discussion ended, at 9:00 pm, for my lesson in counter-revolution.

Alas, I lasted at Table 10 on Thursday till five o’clock, and then returned to my room in total frustration. I called my wife in Massachusetts and told her how awful the discussion was. She advised me to get a good night’s rest and see what tomorrow’s trip into the reality of Venezuela would bring.

Okay, Alice, I said, I love you. Then I conked out.

 

The Universal Need For Lovers

I did meet Maria again, and I’ll tell you about that. To get to Maria’s story faster, I’m also glad to let Saul Landau tell you about our trip into the countryside on Friday. Saul brought along his video camera and has all the details.

I’d never met Saul before. I was slumped outside the hotel lobby, depressed at the prospect of getting on a tour bus, when I heard someone mention Saul’s name. My muse had smiled upon me once again. I accepted her gift gratefully, and immediately asked if I could leave my tour group and join Saul’s. The cadre said okay, so off we went, about twelve of us, under the guidance of Jose, a college kid with a pony-tail who served as our most excellent guide.

Saul Landau is a great man, and if you ever have to travel into the Venezuelan countryside, Saul is the man to go with. He grew up in an iconoclastic neighborhood in the South Bronx, went to Russia in 1961, made a movie with Country Joe in Chile in 1970, and knows almost everything about Cuba and the revolution in Latin America. He’s sixty-nine now, in the process of assembling his life’s work, which has benefited humankind.

We had an official interpreter, a dark and voluptuous Venezuelan woman named Asia dressed in skin tight, hot yellow pants and tank top. But everything was being thrown together hastily, and Asia thought I was the only member of the group who did not have Spanish. When the time came, her English was not very good. Our first stop was a meeting with the mayor of the municipality we toured. I asked a question, and Asia found it difficult to translate the mayor’s response into English. But Saul knew, and spoke up, and after that he served as the unofficial interpreter and good will ambassador for the entire group.

To sum it up, we visited a school where older women were being taught to read and write, and add and subtract. They had received reading glasses, and were learning by watching programs on Venezuelan TV. It was great, and the women were very grateful. They put on a fantastic folk dance, in their colorful country costumes. One woman was dressed as a donkey and threw candy to the scrounging waifs from the apartment complex. The women held a lottery, too, and I was one of the lucky winners of a hand made pillow, which now sits under our Christmas tree.

We visited a medical clinic run by Cubans, and had a delicious al fresco lunch at a restaurant where the head chef was a female veteran of the Cuban revolution. We visited a school at the end of the day, and watched the kids engage in athletic events. Then their teachers played a game. There were three groups in the competition. In each group, a woman fed a man mouthfuls of food. The men made funny faces and the kids laughed hysterically, and the man who ate all his food first won, as a trophy, a fistful of women’s panties!

The Venezuelans are not prudish about sex. They don’t walk around naked like Thais, but the women are constantly adjusting their tank tops around their ample breasts, and patting their skin-tight pants into place on their voluptuous hips. It’s very nice. In the schoolyard, the three women teachers played a game in which their male partners tied a jar around their waists by their zippers. The jar had a string dangling from it and at the end of the string was a little red ball. The object of the game was to swing the red ball between their legs and try to flip it into the jar.

The woman who won received as a trophya fistful of women’s panties!

We concluded our tour with a visit to a 350-year old church. We said goodbye to Asia, in the church courtyard, and piled back in the bus with Jose.

Saul said I could join him for dinner that night, and when I came down from my room, he was sitting in the lounge off the lobby with some of his contemporaries from the Old Left. Smithsonian curator James Early was there, cheerful and wearing a brightly colored African shirt, and Pablo Fernandez, the venerable Cuban poet, with his white goatee and soft voice. I sat on a couch beside Julie, widow of the famous singer and Civil Rights activist. Julie is an elegant woman. She was wearing a beautiful scarf on her head, and a dark pants suit, and still had the graceful moves of a dancer.

We agreed to have dinner together at an Italian restaurant. Saul came down with Luciana, an Italian woman he knew, and Julie came down with Pablo. We were joined by Daniel Del Solar, who had a lively discussion with Saul about everything that was going on. It was the type of banter one would expect of artists and intellectuals. But it was a remark Julie made that stopped everybody in their tracks. During a pause in the conversation, she looked directly in my eyes and said with heart wrenching humility and sincerity, "I’m not an intellectual. All I want is a lover."

Forgive me, Julie, for telling everyone what you said. But the emotional wave you created in me has yet to subside.

I actually stood at the table and said that her confession had captured the essence of what Chavez was stressing about the power of love to unite us. I said that we’d all become so sophisticated and cynical that we couldn’t even admit this simple fact of life anymore. Daniel Del Solar heartily agreed, and said it was time for the Old Lefties to hold hands and lead peaceful demonstrations for peace, once again, like they did in the Sixties. Pablo Fernandez nodded, I think. Luciana smiled and Saul, well, I’ll let Saul explain his feelings on the subject.

When Julie got up to go, I made a point of coming round the table and shaking her hand. Julie understands the universal need for lovers. I’ll follow her anywhere she thinks we should go.

 

Into The Underground

Saturday brought with it the paralyzing thought of three more hours at Table 10. It was to be a short session, until lunch, for the purpose of summarizing in a three-page document their strategy for defending humanity from terror. I knew it was pro-forma, and that our moderator, and the Venezuelan and Cuban military men, had composed it before we arrived. The only reason I went, was on the off chance that Maria wasn’t mad at me for standing her up Thursday night, and that she’d still be willing to show me the other side of Caracas.

We met on the way over, and she immediately said, "Let’s go."

This was a dangerous thing for her to do, for two reason. First and foremost, she is an enemy of the state, and no state takes kindly to those who wish to overthrow it. As Maria would explain, even Chavez, with his message of love and social reform, resorts to violence when he feels he must defend what Maria and the oppositers facetiously call his "Revolucion Bonita." The Pretty Revolution. The other risk was to her professional career. I was already "famous man" for my escapade with Gala; now I’d be leaving the hotel and disappearing into Caracas with a gorgeous twenty-three old woman, dressed in a short brown, frilly skirt, and the body old Goethe had sold his soul for.

I hadn’t been into the city of Caracas since I’d arrived. The cadre strongly discouraged us from going, because of the rash of armed robberies and murders (8,000 last year), often of foreigners. There was also the likelihood of demonstrations against the Encounter ­ and in fact there was one later that day.

Nevertheless, as soon as Table 10 adjourned, Maria and I were off and running. We’d already established a rapport, and now that I was going with her, Maria’s feelings grew. I could tell. Yes, she was using me, and not just to promote the Acción Democrática line. Part of the deal was that I’d buy her an expensive dinner at an exclusive restaurant on the fashionable west side of town.

No problem. She doesn’t have the money. I do, and it’s tax deductible.

It is a wonderful feeling to step out of the stale air of conference rooms into the vibrant atmosphere of downtown Caracas, especially when there’s a pretty girl by your side. The first thing Maria did was stop at a market stall and buy a colorful wool hair band. Her hair was tied up in a bun, and she pulled the band back on her head and let her long brown hair fall down. It was a symbolic gesture, indeed.

We ducked into a subway and on the way, Maria instructed me in the elemental arts of surviving the streets of Caracas. First, lose the Encounter nametag I was obligated to wear at the convention. It identified me as a Chavez supporter, and where we were going, that was dangerous to my health. It felt good, stuffing the thing in my jacket pocket. Next, don’t speak English. That would make me a target of the thugs that roamed the streets looking for rich Americans to rip off. That was okay too, as anything I had to say on the subway I got to whisper in her ear. We got to act like lovers.

There was something undeniably romantic about this adventure. Two pro-Chavez rappers shuffled down the subway car, the first singing verses that asked for donations to the revolution, for the poor, the second making vocal rhythm sounds. Maria whispered in my ear for some coins. She handed them the money and after they passed, she interpreted their words of thanks. Unlike the over-produced, misogynist rappers in the US, these guys were totally impromptu, and way cool.

Six stops later we emerged into a totally different city. We exited the subway at the Plaza Altamira, cite of an anti-Chavez demonstration two years ago that ended with a sniper, or snipers (known generically as franco tirador) on a rooftop or rooftops, shooting into the crowd. Maria was there that day and saw the dead bodies. She helped wash away the blood and plant the flowers that memorialize the massacre.

She trembles with rage and horror as she tells the story. No one had mentioned this at the Encounter. Maybe they expected me to know. I should have known, but as usual, I was stumbling blindly into the fray.

There’s no doubt in Maria’s mind that the Bolivarian Circles were the snipers. She describes the Bolivarian Circles as hard-core Chavez supporters, often poor people armed with AK-47s, who invade the homes of the bourgeoisie, seize their property, and generally terrorize anyone who supports Chavez. Every Bolivarian Circle has a district and a chief.

The Bolivarian Circles do exist , but the pro-Chavez people claim it was the oppositers that shot into the crowd that fateful day, using selective terror as a psywar tactic to spread black propaganda.

I don’t know what side of the story is true. I do know that Maria especially hates Lina Ron, chief of the Bolivarian Circle in downtown Caracas. Lina Ron has terrorized journalists, and students at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. According to Maria, Lina got into a gun fight with another CB leader. They were fighting over the same building, which they both wished to appropriate.

The other side of Caracas is that crazy.

We paid our respects to the dead, and then sat at an outdoor café. We talked during a cloudburst. Maria is definitely afraid, especially of the PTJ cops. The Policía Técnica Judicial. Everyone must watch out for them. She says they rape women with impunity. She shows me her national ID card. There’s an X in the top right corner, because she voted in the December 1999 referendum to oust Chavez and dispense with his socialist reforms.

Maria is not putting on an act. I sympathized with Sabrina on the beach, and I sympathize with Maria, too. But unlike Sabrina, Maria is a militant. She tells me how the college kids she hangs out with always carry a handkerchief and vinegar to class, so they don’t collapse when they’re gassed during anti-Chavez demonstrations. She claims the Chavez forces use mustard gas.

That sounds like Saddam Hussein propaganda, but this college kid has learned how to make Molotov cocktails and potato bombs. Don’t laugh. You slice a potato in half, pour in gunpowder and chlorine, close it up, and put it your backpack for protection during demonstrations. The papaina enzyme in the potato acts as a catalyst, and when thrown with accuracy, a potato bomb can take out a cop’s eye. If the guy is aiming a gun, or about to hurl a tear gas canister at you, that seems a morally acceptable thing to do.

The rain stops. I’m starting to feel a bit overwhelmed. Plaza Altamira is a lovely spot, not at all like downtown Caracas. It’s clean and although there’s traffic, the people walking around are middle class. They behave well. They are mannerly. It’s hard to imagine gunshots from the surrounding roofs.

Maria decides it’s time to put politics aside and eat. That seems a grand idea. I’m hungry and I have promised to take her to her favorite restaurant. We hail a cab and drive across the west side of Caracas. We’re near the suburbs. It looks like America. No crumbling cinderblock houses here. Nestled against the steep green hills in the distance are securely built, million dollar homes, with SUVs parked in two car garages.

No rap music either. We pass the club where Maria hangs out. The college kids gather at 2:00 am and listen to Metallica. This is disturbing to me. I recall a passage I read on my flight to Caracas, in the Dean Koontz book, Odd Thomas. A waitress tells Odd Thomas why she likes Elvis so much. She says, "(I)n his prime, pop music had still been politically innocent, therefore deeply life-affirming, therefore relevant. By the time he died, most pop songs had become, usually without the conscious intention of those who wrote and sang them, anthems endorsing the values of fascism, which remains the case today."

Amen.

I don’t tell Maria that I’m usually in bed by nine, or that I suspect she too has adopted the Metallica values of fascism, the furious sounds that have swept away the last vestiges of humanist culture in America, and buried them under the rubble of a thousand Fallujahs.

We have, despite my nervousness, a fabulous meal at Mastranto Restaurant, on Calle Nueva York. It’s about 2:30 and the place is empty. There are lovely flowering orchids on long trailing vines, and lots of flowering plants. Upscale. First we have a selection of cheeses, hard and soft that we spread on flat bread; and then salads and the traditional Venezuelan Christmas meal, pan de jamón, a delicious long yellow corn bread filled with chopped ham, veggies and olives. Maria drinks scotch and water in a tall glass. I have some beers. It is Christmas time in Caracas, and everyone is the spirit of Felice Navidad. The trees are wrapped in white Christmas lights. We talk happily about food and Venezuelan customs, the check comes with our doggie bags, and it’s time to decide what to do next.

 

 

The Logic Of A Counter-Revolutionary

This is where Maria’s story gets interesting. We decide to take the doggie bags back to her place, so I can meet her parents, who know I am coming and have some information they want to give to me. We get a cab, and along the way Maria stresses the seriousness of the situation. She tells me she is Jewish, which is something of a shock. She is Sephardim Jewish on her mother’s side only. Her biological father was Catholic, like most Venezuelans.

Maria is part of the Jewish bourgeoisie that comprise, in Caracas, a significant force in the Guarimba, the CIA and MOSSAD-backed counter-revolutionary militia. The people in her apartment complex are organized. They have chain saws ready to cut down the trees to form barricades in case the Bolivarian Circles invade. They own and know how to use automatic weapons, and are ready to man posts on top of the buildings.

We arrive at her apartment at dusk. It’s actually two apartments. Maria’s mother got pregnant while very young, and though a single mother, worked hard and was able to buy two apartments when this building was constructed. She tore down the wall between the apartments, and her second husband, Maria’s step-father, has cultivated a dozen lovely bonsai plants of various sizes in front of a wide window that offers a panoramic view of west Caracas. The spacious living room is well-appointed, with low comfortable sofas, carefully tended potted plants, and high quality art. Maria is an artist, and after I meet her mother, she shows me her paintings. They are very good and she is very proud of them. Some are sold in foreign countries. Most are abstract, but others are figures of Venezuelan women.

We sit on the couch and Maria talks politics and philosophy. She is educated, smart, and experienced. This does not mean that her views and opinions are based in reality. She believes in free will. She looks down on Venezuelan men as lazy. "What do they produce?" she asks rhetorically. Nothing. The women here do everything. Latino men need help getting out of bed in the morning. God forbid they should provide sanitary living conditions for their families. They’ll get help, Maria assures me, and it will come from either the Cubans, who just want their oil ­ she says that Castro invaded Venezuela in 1961 in an attempt to grab the oil ­ or the Americans, whom she despises as well, but prefers.

Look at the Puerto Ricans she says. They are "dumb as shit." They can’t read or write. But they have a life with human dignity, without communism, she explains, because they have accepted American democracy.

Maria hates Chavez for personal reasons. Her step-father founded a creative business venture that prospered throughout South America. Then came 27 February 1992. She was ten at the time, sitting on the sidewalk waiting for her school bus. The street was empty. It was eerie. Her hands and feet felt the earth moving, and she saw soldiers marching up the street. She was frozen with fear, but her step-father raced down and grabbed her and brought her back inside. Her family hid under their bed.

This is Chavez, she says venomously. That day he and Jesse Chacon and Arias Cardenas organized a coup d’etat. They "kidnapped" military tanks and stormed the major television station (Channel 8) and killed everyone inside. "Chavez killed fifteen people himself," she says, her arms holding an imaginary assault rifle, "and Chacon killed nine!"

She’s trembling with rage. "Chavez said, ‘I want rivers of blood, full of freedom!’"

Her step-father walks by and tenderly lays his hand on her shoulder. He moves into the kitchen. Maria unconsciously crosses her legs on the couch. Her shirt hikes up to her hips. She grabs a big pillow and puts it in her lap, thankfully. She lights a cigarette and smiles at me. Her mother brings me a liquor, and some documents in Spanish. Maria says that I can learn more when I get back home by logging onto www.globovision.com. There is also an underground radio station that airs weekdays from five to eight pm. That’s CNB FM.

Maria tells met there are six TV stations in Venezuela, and that five are controlled by the opposition. Channel 8 is the government station. It’s obvious, she says. Channel 33 is like CNN. If you listen to them both, you won’t be able to figure out who shot who. And there’s lots of shooting going on. There’s also a "muzzle law" and the most vocal counter-revolutionaries have fled the country, like Marcel Granier. One, Orlando Urdaneta, is on trial for sedition. Maria’s hero, Patricia Poleo, runs a clandestine station and is constantly eluding the PTJ.

Maria is fighting back tears. This is her life. She goes to her room and changes into sweat pants and a t-shirt. It would be really stupid for her to return to the hotel with me, after we were seen leaving together, she says. However, oddly enough, she would like to go with me, and deeply regrets that she can’t. If she were to go, she might meet Chavez, and he might hire her as an interpreter. Money is tight and she’d take the job. Instead, she decided to take me into her confidence and reveal her secrets, on the off-chance I might tell them to the world, without exposing her.

She calls a cab, but there’s been an anti-Chavez demonstration in her neighborhood, protesting the Encounter. The streets are jammed, so we sit and smoke and make small talk while we wait. I could stay if I wanted. But there is that dinner with Chavez at nine, and I ought to go.

Maria goes down on the elevator with me. She’s uncomfortable now, fiddling with the waistband on her sweatpants. She looks at me forlornly. We go outside and she tells the cab driver where to take me, and tells me how much I should pay him. We hug and kiss on the cheek. I climb in the cab and go. I know I will never see her again.

I feel sorry for Maria. She is young, smart, gorgeous, and torn apart. That’s what life in the 21st Century can do to a young person in Venezuela. More than anything, I think she would like a rich man to come along and take her away.

Maybe she thought I might be that man?

 

From Russia, With Love

Thirty minutes later I spill out of the cab at the entrance to the Hilton. There is a woman standing in front of me on the curb. To my great surprise and pleasure, it’s Gala!

Gala is waiting, unescorted, to go to the formal dinner with President Chavez. This is why she came to Caracas. As I mentioned, she believes in his Revolucion Bonita, and more than anything, she wants to meet him personally and place in his hand a CD by the deceased Russian folk singer, Vladimir Vysotsky. There is a song in particular she wants Chavez to hear. It’s called "Hunting Wolves".

There’s a problem. Gala is so exhausted she can barely stand. She has a blank stare, and the muscles in her face aren’t as tight as they usually are. There’s a line of minivans waiting to take the artists and intellectuals to the Crown Performance, but she’s unable, for some reason, to take a step in that direction.

I haven’t seen her in two days, and seeing me seems to bring her back to life.

"I want to talk to you," she says sternly. "Yesterday I meet Mr. Saul Landau." (I know what’s coming!) "He says to me, ‘You must be the Russian woman who went to beach with DOUGLAS VALENTINE.’"

"Are you mad at me for telling him?" I ask.

"No," she says, looking over a soft shoulder, with a smile that brightens the night.

"You look very tired," I say. "Sure you want to go?"

Her response surprises me. "This is a very anti-woman thing," she says, meaning the Encounter.

I tell her I have no plans of going to the dinner, that I just want to hit the sack, but I see the CD clutched in her hand. I know she’s uncertain, so I suggest we go inside and talk for a bit. She agrees. We find some comfy chairs in an alcove off the lobby and plop down. She asks a few questions about Saul, which I answer. She’s a little miffed that I ran off with a sultry young counter-revolutionary (everyone knows), but she forgives me for that indiscretion too.

Gala tells me how frustrating it was at her Table discussion group. Because she is a woman, the moderators ignored her. Finally, she said, making a strangling gesture with her hands, she stood up and read her statement, whether they wanted to hear it or not.

They didn’t, and she has become disillusioned. With the Encounter, not with Chavez. She decides not to go to the soiree, but she wants me to go for a walk with her. She has something important to get off her chest, and in the absence of Chavez, these words shall be said to me. For me, this is a great honor.

We leave the lobby and turn left into the shadows of the hotel. A security guard watches us. I subtly wave him away. As we begin to walk, Gala gathers her strength. She shows me the CD and tells me that Vladimir Vysotsky was a famous folk singer in the Sixties and Seventies. She feels in her heart that Chavez is right, but, she says, "Indians, like Russians, are naïve." She is talking about the song, "Hunting Wolves".

Russian is a musical and melodic language, and Gala has a beautiful voice. We are deep in the shadows now, and she begins to recite the song, soulfully. Her voice is strong, ethereal. The words to "Okhota Na Volkovgo" go something like this:

I am running, hurtling through the night,
And my heart is bursting, because the hunters
Have cornered me! They have driven me
Toward other huntsmen who wait for their prey!
From the fir-trees the rifle-shots come quickly,
And the wolves are falling in the snow.

They are hunting wolves! They are pursuing the predators.
The beaters shout, the dogs howl and bare their teeth!
The flags on the snow are red, as red as the blood.

We are outnumbered, and the huntsmen are merciless.
They enclose us with the red flags on their ropes.
They shoot us at point blank range.
But a wolf cannot change his nature.
With milk sucked from the she-wolfs, the cubs
Learn never, never to cross the red flags!

We are swift and our jaws are ready.
Why then, pack leader, must we rush at the guns?
A wolf cannot change the old story.
The end is near, my time is almost done.
Now the huntsman smiles as he raises his gun.

They are hunting wolves! They are pursuing the predators.
The beaters shout, the dogs howl and bare their teeth!
The flags on the snow are red, as red as the blood.

But revolution and the life-force are stronger
Than the fear that the red flags instill.
From behind come dismayed cries of anger
As I cheat them, with joy, of their kill.
In my flight, my heart bursting, I hurtle,
But the outcome is different today!
I was cornered! They had me encircled!
But the huntsmen were foiled of their prey! 1

Gala is staring up at the stars with a bright brave smile. Through me, I guess, she has delivered her song to Chavez ­ the Indian volk, hunted by Bush and maybe, just maybe, destined to cheat his fate.

"He said I had a flame," she reminds me.

He was right, I agree. But not exactly right.

"You are a deep lake," I say.

Gala looks in my eyes. The "convenient and flexible man" understands.

 

A Convenient And Flexible Man

It is Sunday and Gala and I have decided to go swimming again, rather than attend the Plenary Session of the Encounter. Some might say we’re ingrates.

We don’t care. Gala is a wolf, and she is going to back to Pantaleta Beach.

Our hearts, however, are filled with sadness at the inevitable sad endings that await us. We deal with this in different ways. Gala is dealing with it her way. I have become "convenient and flexible man" again. I hope this is a temporary state of affairs, but I must admit, she has her reasons. I’m married. I told Saul about us. I skipped off with Maria, and wasted my time talking to a counter-revolutionary.

On a deeper level, I have found the secret pathway to her heart, and that was never meant to be. This is something she cannot acknowledge, even to herself.

Before we go, I have one last thing to do. I can’t leave without making my statement. I ask Gala to wait, then head toward the bank of elevators, where Danny Glover is leaning against the wall. Like all of us, he’s running out of steam. I ask him what he thinks about everything so far, and he gives a muffled, negative reply. I suggest we talk about it for a minute. He agrees, which is a big mistake.

Danny Glover follows me around the elevators. He sits on a table and I tell him that the Encounter has been a charade. There was never any desire to save the world. It’s all about ego, I say, deliberately provoking him.

Glover takes umbrage. People from all over the world have come here, he says, with the sincerest desire to help. Which is true.

Then I did something I’ve never done before. I poked Danny Glover in the shoulder. Hard. That woke him up. You’re never gonna change a damn thing, I snarled, unless there’s a revolution in America.

Glover rose to his full Lethal Weapon height and launched into a tirade about CNN and Fox News, about Ramsay Clark and America being "The Greatest Purveyor etc.," and even about the starving children in Africa. At some point I stopped listening. People had gathered around us, and some poor reporter tried to ask a question. He became, as they say in Hollywood, collateral damage; Glover took off his head with one swift verbal swipe. When I left, a smug smile on my face, Glover was ranting before four or five microphones and a camera. He never knew I’d gone.

Gala was on tip-toes watching from the lobby. "I just pissed off Danny Glover, big time," I explained.

"Show me him," she said, strutting over beside me. She took a quick look at the famous movie star, nodded her approval, and off we went.

Sunday morning, Gala is a woman of many changing moods. In the car, the air conditioning is never quite right. My tryst with a young, sexy counter-revolutionary ­ and the fact that I bought her an expensive dinner! ­ precludes any political discourse. We stop to buy some fruit. She gets a bag of some small things like nectarines. I buy a bunch of bananas, which I share with the driver. Gala says bananas aren’t fruit, they’re potatoes. Fruit is best when it tastes sour, she says.

Okay! We are going to the beach to relax, so I relax and enjoy the ride. We get there quicker this time. The first driver told this driver how to go. As we arrive, we see white caps on the water. Surfs up.

It’s a beautiful day, but the beach is crowded and the waves are rough. Gala’s unhappy about this. She wiggles and pulls off her tight blue jeans. She turns away from me, facing everyone else on the beach, and changes from her bra into her bikini bathing suit top. I’m huddled under the awning. She pulls her chair out into the sun. To talk, she has to turn around and sort of holler back at me. She doesn’t like the loud music.

There’s a Venezuelan attorney camped next to us. Augustus A. Petricca. Just Gus. He’s drinking scotch and water, and listening to jazz fusion on a headset. He tells me the beach music is Puerto Rican, reggatone, I think it’s spelled, by Tego. It’s cool. I like it.

Gus is a good guy. He explains how the Venezuelan judicial system works under Chavez. He says you can do business with Chavez, but it isn’t easy. Gus voted the wrong way in the referendum and has the black mark on his national ID card. This means he will not be allowed to register his gun when the license is up. For some, it’s necessary to have a gun in Venezuela. Gus is not optimistic, but he’s a realist. The world goes on.

Gala’s peeved that I’ve found someone interesting to talk politics with, and worse, I’m taking notes. I’m always taking notes, and she wants me to relax, evidently, so she can relax. What can I do? I’m a writer. I can’t honestly take a tax deduction unless I work. I’ll relax when I get back to Massachusetts. Right now I want to talk to Gus. I tell him some of the things Maria said to me, and he says much of it is exaggeration.

Maria had said there was a "500 meter" rule, and that Chavez had confiscated everything within 500 meters of the water. That’s a lot of land.

Gus says yes, there is such a rule, but it is not enforced. He smiles. As an attorney, he knows that most of the rules and laws that Chavez has decreed aren’t enforceable. The country is waiting out the storm. They’ve gone to the beach.

I’m confused. I ask about the deserted buildings I’ve seen three times now, out and back and out again to Panatela Beach. I also ask, why no cinderblock houses packed into the lush green hills around here?

The buildings are deserted, and the shantytowns are gone, Gus says solemnly, because a vicious storm hit the coast five years ago. It totally devastated the roads and waterworks between Panatela Beach and Caracas. Entire communities were washed away. By some estimates, 50,000 people died. That’s about fifteen percent of the people that lived in this area.2

Gala has taken her Hilton hotel towel off her beach chair and laid it on the sand in front of me. She was busy sunning herself, but after hearing what Gus said, she moves her chair close to mine, under the awning. She asks if we can take a walk on the beach. I ask Gus to watch our stuff and he kindly agrees.

"All the Venezuelans smoke marijuana," Gala says matter-of-factly, as we stroll along, side by side. She walks close to me, so her shoulder touches my arm. For some reason, I am back in her good graces.

I laugh. I tell her I’ve been offered pot and cocaine several times since I’ve been in Venezuela. Maybe a toke or two will help me to relax, I say.

Gala doesn’t smoke or drink. Drinking makes her wild. She likes hot sand and cold water. They do that in Russia. They take a hot steam bath then run naked into icy water. According to Gala, this is as exhilarating as any drug. "I’ll take your word for it," I smile.

Gala likes twenty below zero weather, when the world is a crystal palace in a fairyland. She’s an amazing Russian woman.

We sit down side by side, and I tell her about my upbringing. How I came from a blue collar family. My father worked two jobs, and my mother worked too. But they always had time to take my sister and me to Shakespearean plays and foreign films, and they infused within us a belief in the power of ideas. Radical ideas. When I seventeen, my father sent me to work for an eccentric tree surgeon. He was known as a non-conformist in Pleasantville, but he was actually a Socialist.

"A Socialist," Gala whispers with surprise.

"Voted for Norman Thomas six times," I reply. "Was a conscientious objector in World War Two. A two-fisted drinker, and man of his convictions."

More importantly, I say, this eccentric tree surgeon made work into a game. We labored until lunch time, then recited poems to each other. The other guy had to guess the poet and the name of the poem. I tell her that my father and this tree surgeon taught me that you could be an artist and intellectual, and not be rich.

Gala turns and whispers in my ear. "So, tell me this." In her hypnotic, melodic voice, she recites these lines:

O! What a noble mind is here o’erthrown:
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass and fashion and the mould of form,
The observ’d of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O! woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Have I mentioned that Gala is the most remarkable woman I have ever met?

While she is lying close, reciting these words into my ear, I hear only lyrical, lilting sounds. I have been transported back to some Elizabethan scene, as if in a magic spell. When I open my eyes, she is awaiting my reply.

"Why is Hamlet cruel to Ophelia?" I ask her.

"He is not cruel," she says decisively. "He is preparing to die."

Gala smiles and says I am a flower, and announces that it is time to go. I snap to attention and begin to gather my belongings while she assumes "the stance": facing away from me, one leg placed defiantly forward, bent at the knee, on tip toe, as she wiggles into her tight blue jeans. It’s a gratuitous statement to make, I know, but she has a very nice behind. Facing away from me, at everyone else on the beach, she changes back into her blouse and denim jacket. I’ve got my stuff together, but I’m still in awe. In the political context of everything that has happened, she quoted the one passage from Shakespeare that put it all together: her, me, Chavez, the rotten state of the world.

Meanwhile, Gala is turning in circles, laughing out loud, a belly laugh, with her hands behind her back. First I wonder, "What ridiculous thing did I do now?" Then I begin to wonder, as she laughs and spins for a full sixty seconds, if Gala isn’t just a little crazy?

She’s not crazy. She needs me to fasten her bra.

Okay, Gala, would you like I hook it tight, medium, or loose? Medium, she laughs, and off we go.

On the way back, Gala invents her own game. She will recite Russian fairy tales and I will guess what they’re about. I haven’t a word of Russian, but her expressions, and the artfully modulated tones of her voice, ranging from sorrow to ecstasy, make this an easy ­ and because I always guess right ­ fantastically fun game to play. I think this is how I will remember her best: eyes bright with the joy of expression, one had clutching her denim jacket against her chest, a fragile shield against a nasty world we will, too soon, join again.

By the time we get back to the hotel, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way to save the world. The Defense of Humanity depends on Gala. I hope that someday Gala will rule the world. As she sits on her throne, dispensing love and justice, I hope she will call upon me, her most humble servant.

We meet later that evening to say farewell. Chavez is hosting a concert at the auditorium but, as usual, we decide not to go. We cannot change our nature. We sit in the lounge watching him on TV. Let it rock, Hugo, let it roll. I have a tall glass of scotch and water, in tribute to the Venezuelans I’ve met. I smoke a cigarette. Gala and I speak of intimate things, but my mind has turned to mush. The amphetamine rush has worn away, and I’m crashing into the wall. I’m starting to babble, and Gala is a bit of an emotional wreck. It’s been pretty overwhelming. We ride the elevator to our separate floors. I doubt I will never see her again.

Epilogue

On Monday morning I go down to the banquet hall for café and a croissant. I do see Gala again, with her Russian boss. They are yakking away at a table with some people I don’t know. I’m grateful they don’t see me. I walk across the room and take a table by myself.

Almost immediately, I am joined by a group of the college kids, the ones who have been assisting us. I’ve come to know some of them individually, over the last few days, better than the artists and intellectuals with whom I could never quite relate. I relate to the guys in the caddy shack, not the ones in the country club. It’s a class thing that has to do with my upbringing.

The fact that I took the time to get to know them, and that I treated them well, along with my anti-establishment behavior (I am famous man who went to beach with gorgeous Russian woman) and my passage through the counter-revolutionary underworld with Maria, has afforded me a special status. There is something they want to say to me before I go, and they have formed a delegation. Jose is their leader. Not the Jose with the ponytail, but another Jose.

Jose with the ponytail is an avid Chavez supporter. This Jose is his friend, but he signed the referendum. They are friends, he says, but if you want to have friends in Venezuela, you can’t talk politics. The other kids at the table nod. They look at me anxiously, hopefully.

Jose sits erect. He is tall and muscular, with an air of authority. He tells me that he needed this job, but that in order to get it, he had to have an interview with the mayor of his village. Jose has the black mark on his ID card, and in order to enter the mayor’s office, he had to pass through a metal detector and submit to a search. He was afraid that, because he had signed the referendum, they wouldn’t give him this job.

You have to understand, he wasn’t just afraid that he wouldn’t get the job. If you have the black mark on your national ID card, they can do anything they want to you.

Fortunately, bi-lingual students are a precious commodity, and market forces rule. Now he wants to tell me how much he and the other kids appreciated my kindness. They will not accept a tip from me. I was the only one, they say, to take the time to check out the other side of the story. One cannot understand Venezuela, and the hopes and dreams of its young people, without doing that. There is more to the story than Chavez, and they hope that I will carry that message back to America. They smile with relief as I write all this down.

I vow to do it.

But I have one nagging question. It’s been bugging me since that first day, on the ride to Caracas from the airport, when it was raining so hard I was afraid the cinderblock shantytowns might wash away. I know that some of the young kids sitting at the table live in these shantytowns. I tell Jose what Gus said; that the rains did wash away, in a torrent of mud and debris, many of the shantytowns on the east coast. I told Jose that I would never forget the empty buildings that stand as a monument to that tragedy. To me, they are a symbol of the unrealized potential of this beautiful and fragile country.

Jose looks me in the eye. Did Gus tell you exactly when those rains came?

No, I reply.

The famous referendum was on 16 December 1999, exactly five years ago, Jose says. This was a crucial moment in Venezuelan history, and Chavez’s survival depended on a huge turnout in his favor. The rains, Jose says, started on the 14th, and the weather forecasters were predicting a devastating storm. So Chavez got on national TV and gave a speech. He said words that went something like this: "If nature will oppose us, then we will fight and overcome nature."

That’s Hugo Chavez Frias, a modern-day Don Quixote. With inexhaustible optimism, he’s trying to keep the inexorable forces of Crony Capitalism from sweeping away his policies of government reform and redistribution of wealth. He is fearless and inspirational, and rightly blames the tragedy of December 1999 on the corrupt politicians and businessmen who allowed the shantytowns to be built in the steep valleys in the first place. He is right that the Capitalists don’t give a damn about the 50,000 poor people, street vendors mostly, who perished; or the illiterate and malnourished people we saw on our visits to the missions. He is right to appropriate the land of the big companies, which have deforested much of Venezuela, and to give it to poor people to farm. He is right, even heroic, to thumb his nose at the little prick, George W. Bush, who would like nothing better than to dip his blood-soaked hands into Venezuela’s oil fields.

I shall leave you with this thought, which was burned into my brain by mighty Gala. The Capitalists are hunting wolves around the world. They call it the war on terror, but in reality, it is simply cruel Imperial sport. They have set up their red flags everywhere, marking the boundaries of freedom. Through their cult of celebrity, and cosmetic materialism, they have destroyed the last vestiges of humanism in America. Bush’s hunters are our pride and glory.

Like Maria, will America applaud when Bush gets Chavez in his crosshairs, and finally pull the trigger?

Is Chavez the archetypal hero, fighting the raging ocean waves with his sword? The gods drown the man who challenges nature. Like Hamlet, is he preparing to die?

Or will Chavez leap over the red flags and escape, and bring the Revolucion Bonita to the rest of the world? Can love triumph?

The love of the wolf for the flower?

DOUGLAS VALENTINE is the author of The Hotel Tacloban, The Phoenix Program, and TDY. His fourth book, The Strength of the Wolf: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930-1968, is newly published by Verso. The Strength of the Wolf, has received the Choice Academic Excellence Award and is being published in Russia. Tthe sequel, The Strength of the Pack, is being published by University Press of Kansas in December 2005. For information about Mr. Valentine, and his books and articles, please visit his web sites at www.DouglasValentine.com and http://members.authorsguild.net/valentine