In the Land of the Master Chess Player

I’m in the land of the Master Chess Player, Franco reminds me. It’s sunset and we’re a few kilometers outside of Barquisimeto, Venezuela after a dizzying trip filming in just a small part of western Venezuela which took us, among other places, through the home state of President Hugo Chavez. We’ve passed through and taped interviews in Carora, called the “first socialist city” of Venezuela, then dipped down into Sanare to visit and tape in agroecological coops before winding through the eastern edge of the Andes to Guanare, the nondescript capital of Portuguesa where stayed the night before heading through Chavez’s home state of Barinas. Finally, we drove over the mountains and through the eerie paramo, testing our brakes on the descent into Merida, in the heart of the Andes, where we premiered my movie on Venezuela to a small audience of friends and others in the community and also where we’ve left Ari to do his own explorations.

All along the way, we’ve passed through numerous alcabalas, or checkpoints. These checkpoints, manned by the National Guard and state police, are a new phenomenon, but I didn’t think to ask Franco about them. Franco, who has been driving my co-director on a new movie, Ari Krawitz, and me around in his Chevy Blazer, has a method for getting through the checkpoint without being stopped and it’s worked well all but once: we roll the tinted windows of his Chevy Blazer down and smile at the guardsmen and, when they see our innocent expressions, we pass through without a problem. The one time we were stopped the guardsman merely checked Franco’s papers, Ari’s and my passports and visas, and then waved us on when he saw we had nothing in the vehicle but suitcases and cameras.

I assumed that the checkpoints were part of new security measures in Venezuela, and in a sense they are, but they date back, as Franco tells me, to August of last year (2007). The subject of the checkpoints comes up incidentally as we pass by La Pastora Sugar Mill in the state of Lara, just across the border from Trujillo.

La Pastora is one of the bigger sugar companies in Venezuela and it’s dead center in one of the largest extensions of sugar cane fields I’ve seen, an area that reminds one of Nebraska with its endless cornfields.

As we drive past the sugar mill belching a large plume of grey smoke, Franco waves his hand out the window at the miles of sugar cane extending in every direction. “How is it possible that we had a shortage of sugar here?” he asks with more than a slight tinge of anger in his voice.

I shrug. “You had a shortage of sugar?”

He looked at me with alarm. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear about it,” he said, “yes, sugar — and milk and oil. And even, for a time, coffee, believe it or not. All this went to Colombia, and then we had to buy it all back.”

I ask him to explain.

“It happened last year just before the referendum. Polar, Alfonso Rivas y Compañia, Cargill and some other companies related to Purina and others, were sending all this stuff out of the country to be sold at market prices in Colombia. You see, the prices were being controlled here in Venezuela to make food available and affordable to working people. So what happened was these companies sent all this out, truckload after truckload: caravans of all this food, into Colombia. And we had to buy it all back.”

We pass through another alcabala where there is a National Guard truck with an x-ray machine and a conveyor belt attached. We dutifully roll down the tinted windows and turn off the air conditioner. We’re hit with a blast of dry air as we smile at the guards, who smile back, and then wave us through.

The overriding reason the corporations shipped food to Colombia was, of course, profiteering: a liter of milk sold in a transitional socialist economy won’t command the same price as the same liter sold in Colombia’s “free trade” capitalist markets. But there was also a political reason, and that was the referendum of December 2, Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution’s first electoral defeat. The shortages, engineered by the very same opposition which decried them, then blamed them on Chávez, ironically boosted dissatisfaction sufficiently to defeat the initiatives for the further socialization of the economy. The referendum lost by less than one percentage point.

Franco waves his hand in front of him again. “Chavez is a plainsman and he has a long vision. He’s a great chess player who turns defeats into victories. And so he set up these checkpoints to stop what was really highway robbery by the big corporations, and then he began to nationalize the food industries.”

We stop for a cup of espresso at a roadside restaurant, Las Sabanetas, between Carora and Barquisimeto. I recognize the massive hallway of food shops that offer snacks, the typical Venezuelan food, arepas, guava paste candy, exotic fruit juices, and everything else, including statues of Maria Lionza, the Venezuelan goddess, and the local Chaplinesque doctor/saint with a little mustache and dressed in an odd black suit with tie and hat, Jose Gregorio Hernandez. This is the same mall in the middle of nowhere which the all-night Caracas to Merida bus visits at one in the morning, just in time to wake passengers up for a midnight coffee or a snack.

Franco orders a small black espresso and a small espresso with milk, a café marrón. He dumps a packet of sugar in each of the two little plastic cups, the sizes of large thimbles. I ask him if there are still shortages. He laughs.

“Not any more. Not since Chavez started nationalizing the food companies. Lacteos Los Andes, which represents over forty percent of the market in milk and milk products, is now state owned. He also created Pedeval, a PDVSA (Venezuela Petroleum Company) project which buys food from overseas and sells it here in Venezuela at very low prices. Then, to give a little to the capitalists, he also raised the maximum price for milk and suddenly there was milk everywhere. So he used the carrot with one hand, and the stick with the other.”

We slam down our coffees, stop by the bathroom to recycle the previous cups, and then we hit the road again. It’s a race against time as the sky darkens and still Barquisimeto seems so far away. We’d hoped to arrive by six but have been slowed down on the highway by a caravan of trucks loaded with green plantains. Franco puts his foot on the gas and we barrel along into the twilight.

“The bottom line is that you’ve got to be a masochist to be a businessman in the opposition,” he says as we drive into Barquisimeto. It’s nearly dark and Franco has notoriously bad night vision. That, combined with a pair of weak headlights, has me on edge as we weave into town. He tries to stay in his lane and look for our hotel at the same time, and then he sees the big cement factory. A car, which has nearly rear-ended us, convinces Franco to put on his emergency blinkers as we drive along the service road of the highway. Franco mutters something in Italian and then points to the cement factory we just passed.

“Look at that. Smart business people know they can do good business with Chavez,” he says. Someone honks at us and quickly passes, the roar of an engine temporarily drowning out Franco’s words. “If they push too hard and disrupt the country with another attempt at a golpe (coup) then he nationalizes them. Otherwise, if they cooperate with the new socialist economy, they win and make their money. Either way he has stopped them at the checkpoints.”

“That may be true, Franco, but then, what makes this a “socialist” economy?” I ask.

To my dismay, Franco takes his eyes off the road to look at me. “Making food, housing and education accessible to all as a top priority. Profit has to be a second priority,” he replies.

Check, mate.

Clifton Ross is a writer and videographer. His book, Translations from Silence won the 2010 Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from Oakland PEN and has just been published in Spanish by Editorial Perro y Rana, Venezuela. His film, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out was published in 2008 by PM Press. He can be contacted at clifross1(at)yahoo.com. Read other articles by Clifton.