Chávez, a Cockfight and the Caracazo

Belén, Venezuela.

At a cockfight at the end of February somewhere in the northern Venezuelan state of Carabobo, a rooster from Tampa, Florida was defeated by a rooster from Cuba. My friend Amelia and I were notified of the defeat by Freddy, the manager of Posada Don Manuel in the town of Belén on the eastern edge of Carabobo. We had included the town in our tour of Venezuela based on the fact that it shared my name and boasted a Barrio Adentro clinic, one in a string of free health care facilities we had visited in search of assorted medical procedures.

Freddy was a diminutive 70-year old who maintained that he was 59 until Amelia and I presented him with mathematical contradictions stemming from the age of his oldest child. He denied that the triumph of the Cuban rooster was indicative of broader regional trends—despite the recent triumph of a constitutional amendment authorizing Venezuelan officials to run for indefinite reelection—and surmised that the Cuban rooster simply controlled the media.

As for social programs involving Cuban doctors, Freddy claimed that Hugo Chávez’ Misión Barrio Adentro was an attempt at foreign infiltration of Venezuela under humanitarian guise, as well as a means of perpetuating the cycle of discrimination against the non-poor. Amelia and I pointed out that:

the Barrio Adentro staff in Belén was convinced that our request for free ultrasounds of various parts of our bodies was a maneuver concocted by the CIA. this did not prevent them from attending to us, thus perpetuating a cycle of discrimination in which medical supplies were denied to Cuba by the US such that they could be used on Amelia and me by Cuban doctors in Venezuela.

Posada Don Manuel, Belén’s sole option for accommodations, consisted of approximately a dozen rooms and a parking lot, all contained within a high wall with a white sliding gate. Over vodka and insects in the parking lot on our first night in town, Freddy lamented the number of rooms that were still only half-finished after a decade of work, and attributed the delay to the fact that construction of the posada had overlapped with construction of the Bolivarian state. I had heard similar complaints from my father’s relatives in Cuba, who claimed to have been attempting to repaint their bathroom for the past 50 years; lack of access to paint did not seem to be an issue at the posada in Belén, where the inside of the surrounding wall had been divided into colorful panels devoted to a variety of subjects.

Two of the panels featured Simón Bolívar looking off into the distance with accompanying quotes. Others advertised the town’s claims to fame (handmade cheese and cockfighting), its official religion (Catholic), and its primary tourist attractions (Posada Don Manuel). The specification of religious orientations was justified by Freddy:

FREDDY: Chávez no es cristiano.

The cockfighting panel, meanwhile, was substantiated by the arrival to the posada of a gallero whose T-shirt, hat, belt buckle, and keychain depicted roosters in various poses. He was toting a live rooster in a carrying case that also depicted a rooster, and informed us that there would be a cockfight the following day,  March 1, at a nearby arena. Freddy attempted to resume his position at the center of the conversation by announcing once again that he was 59.

When Amelia and I arrived to the arena the next morning, we were immediately ushered through a crowd of beer drinkers into a corner where two men were attaching artificial spurs to a rooster’s legs with adhesive tape. A single poster of Chávez holding a Palm Sunday cross hung on the wall, and most of the red baseball caps present featured cockfighting slogans rather than slogans of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela.

Once the rooster had been prepared for the fight, Amelia and I were ushered back through the beer drinkers to the fighting ring and advised to refrain from placing bets based on which rooster we thought was prettier. We were otherwise incorporated into the action when Amelia got to draw a numbered beer cap out of a sack in order to determine the order of battle, and when we had a bloodied rooster thrust in front of our faces so that we could observe how one of his artificial spurs had fallen off.

The man doing the thrusting explained that a lost spur eliminated the possibility of victory. Amelia and I asked if the rooster from Tampa had also lost a spur during his confrontation with the Cuban rooster; the man was unsure of the details, but did know that Chávez had lost a spur during his confrontation with the global financial crisis. We recalled other applications of animal terminology to the president of Venezuela by segments of the opposition, and suggested adopting the classification of him as a black monkey as a possible jumping off point for negotiations with Barack Obama, who might sympathize with fellow victims of primate jokes.

Amelia and I lasted for 2.5 fights out of a scheduled 16 and returned to Posada Don Manuel to find Freddy sitting in a chair in front of the wall panel featuring the painting of Posada Don Manuel. When we informed him we had just been at the cockfighting arena, Freddy announced that the poster of the Palm Sunday cross was further evidence of Chávez masquerading as a man of religion—as was the fact that he had read a passage from the Bible during the 20th-anniversary commemoration of the Caracazo uprising on 27 February.

The Caracazo had come about in reaction to policies of President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had confronted his own economic crisis by donating his spurs to the IMF, and had resulted in the killing and disappearing of untold numbers of citizens by the national armed forces. During his commemoration of the event, Chávez confirmed that the Venezuelan administration at the time had not been based at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas but rather at the White House.

Freddy contended that the current Venezuelan administration was based not at the Miraflores presidential palace but rather in a sickbed in Havana, and that governing regimes founded on national diets of rice and beans were destructive to the human body. The dangers of the new pecking order were reinforced a few days later, when Chávez announced from Miraflores the expropriation of a rice plant belonging to a Minnesota-based multinational that had been evading price controls on unmodified food items by modifying them.

BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opaliska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at

Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon.