Chavistas (Chavez supporters) and Che Guevara.
This past Sunday, amid a political climate so polarized that it makes Romney and Obama look like sexed up newlyweds, Venezuela celebrated their presidential elections. Hugo Chavez beat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, giving him another six years to implement his Bolivarian revolution and/or continue pissing off the rest of the world while he bankrupts his country.
Whatever your view on Chavez (and trust me, everyone’s got one), the situation in Venezuela after 13 years of Hugo calling the shots is fucking weird. The oil-rich country is home to the largest oil fields in the world, while at the same time having one of the highest murder rates in the world. (As you'll recall from our new documentary, Venezuelan Body Count, last year Caracas had more violent deaths than Baghdad.) You’ve basically got as much chance of getting filthy rich in Caracas as you have of getting kidnapped or shot.
Predictably, then, the main issues in the election revolved around gun crime, social inequality, and corruption. While those on the side of Chavez defended the success of the misiones (a redistribution of wealth scheme that has led to those in the poorest barrios receiving benefits from the state-owned PDVSA oil company), the opposition accused the same benefits system of creating a handout-dependent working class on the poverty line, rather than real social mobility.
To get a handle on how the people of Venezuela are feeling about all this, we called up Carla Paez, who made the documentary Who Wants Tuki?. Changa Tuki, by the way, is a rave-injected blend of hardstyle and reggaeton that's been the soundtrack of the ranchos (Venezuela's favelas) since 2004. The ranchos are notoriously difficult to film in and are often hotbeds of Chavez support, so considering she's spent a large amount of time hanging out there, we figured she'd have a decent idea of public opinion.
VICE: Hey Carla. How are you?
Carla Paez: Hi! I'm OK, I guess, but a bit disappointed with the result. How are you?
Good, thanks. I’m guessing you didn’t vote for Chavez?
Nope. Capriles was the first opposition candidate we’ve had that actually seemed like a good option. For the first time in forever, people weren’t voting against Chavez, but actually for Capriles.
What made you vote for him? We tend to see all politicians as out-of-touch liars in America.
Apart from the fact that he’s young and hot, he distanced himself from traditional Venezuelan politics, in a similar way to how Chavez did back in '99. He had good, new ideas and was the first politician to talk about how the country has become so divided. Even though I wouldn’t say that me or my associates are remotely political, with the surge in criminality and violence, it’s become harder and harder to avoid taking sides.
Henrique Capriles meeting his supporters.
So the biggest issue for you was crime? Do you think Capriles could have made changes there?
I guess we’ll never know. While I don’t have much faith in election promises, it’s obvious that tackling criminality is not a priority for the current government. Chavez’s discourse has radicalized class divisions and legitimized violence. Robbery happens all over the world, but here it’s considered normal to be shot over a mobile phone. Even after they’ve stolen it.
Sort of like a government approved class war?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a war, but the feeling you get in Caracas is that the middle class are a target. Fear is something that’s with us every day.
You filmed part of Who Wants Tuki? in Petare, the biggest slum in Caracas and a traditional Chavista stronghold.
Suprisingly, Petare was actually won by Capriles. I’m sure it was only by a small margin, but it still shows how the country is changing. Although we took precautions, I never once felt threatened while we were filming there. I guess everyone wants to live in a safer country. Elberth, the dancer in the film, told us about having lost friends to gun crime, or because they’d "taken the wrong path." Like us, the priority of the people we spoke to was to be able to continue to do what they enjoyed doing.
Couldn’t this shift be a sign that the misiones are working?
Possibly, but it all depends on how they’re run. One of the problems with the system is that it’s difficult to get access to benefits unless you are registered as a Chavista. There are other problems too, such as understaffing of the medical centers, but you’d really have to see it for yourself to understand.
So—six more years. Are you expecting any repercussions? I remember after the 2004 elections there were allegations about people who had voted for the opposition being denied jobs.
Going on Chavez’s speech yesterday, it’s likely that the country will carry on along the same lines. I really don’t feel that the quality of life for the working class is improving. Poverty is worse and opportunities are harder to come by. The main problem is inflation, making it harder to afford to eat. This can only mean more violence.