Venezuela: Rich Dictator, Poor People

Por Venezuela Real - 13 de Junio, 2008, 12:02, Categoría: Testimonios

Cristal Montañéz
Energy Tribune
June 2008

I am a former Miss Venezuela, and although a naturalized U.S. citizen, I feel a deep responsibility for and commitment to my country of origin. Today, I condemn the disaster that has befallen my country since Hugo Chávez took office, and continue to denounce it to let the world know the current reality of Venezuela. This is a personal account juxtaposed by political and social events.

In 1977 when I received my crown, my country was an enticing paradise and a lucrative place for business. Venezuela"s inviting tropical climate mirrored the fun, fresh personality of her people. During my career as an international model, I always felt proud to represent Venezuela. Even though its system was not perfect, my country was a peaceful, exotic melting pot. It was considered an example of democracy and a political model to be imitated in Latin America, characterized by the separation of power and respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. Those were years of development and growth, excellent international relations, and recognition for Venezuela.

I remember with pride the creation of PDVSA (1975), the inauguration of the Caracas Metro (1983), and the Grand Mariscal de Ayacucho, a scholarship program that educated so many of our petroleum engineers. There were food programs for the schools, internationalization of the oil industry, and the construction of the Teresa Carreno Art Center, among many other triumphs. All that, was before Hugo Chávez came to power.

I also remember my first experience as a political activist during the 1978 presidential campaign. That year, when I placed my ballot in the box for the first time, I had the confidence my vote would be secret and respected. Today, Venezuelans face an irregular electoral registry, and their ballots are manipulated by fraudulent electronic machines.

The Vargas Tragedy

Many of my fondest memories are of driving with friends and family to Vargas State, the region I represented, on weekends to enjoy some of the most stunning beaches on the northern Caribbean coast. Vargas was a popular (and profitable) tourist stop. Home to the country"s large seaport, La Guaira, and the principal airport in Venezuela, its unique blend of beauty and Caribbean charisma attracted people from all over the world. Unfortunately, that has changed during the Chávez regime. Now, increased crime and violence discourage tourists from traveling to Venezuela.

A few days before the 1999 referendum for a new constitution, meteorologists advised President Chávez"s government that some 16 inches of heavy rains were expected in Vargas and recommended that the scheduled election be postponed. Chávez ignored the warning, demanding that all go to the polls and commanding them to "fight against nature" if necessary.

Chávez called upon the armed forces to fully monitor the referendum process instead of calling for the affected area to be evacuated. Hence, few soldiers were available to help in the disaster areas.

My father was a military man, and I grew up with great respect for soldiers who dedicate their lives in defense of the state. Even though the Venezuelan constitution established that the armed forces "are at the exclusive service of the nation, and in no case at the service of any person or political partisanship," Chávez has converted them into his own political appendage and ensured that the military serves his interests. The Venezuelan military now includes reserves and territorial guards, whose main purpose is to spread political ideology and serve as "local resistance before an internal aggression or invasion of foreign forces."

After the torrential rains, it took days for the Venezuelan military to take action in Vargas. The rainfall reached some 48 inches and mudslides resulted in a loss of lives that could have been prevented. Approximately 30,000 people died and thousands were airlifted out of the disaster area to other states.

Six months after the tragedy I traveled to Vargas, leading a group of young ambassadors representing Bear Hugs for Venezuela, a UNICEF program for the children affected run in conjunction with the Venezuelan Red Cross. The devastation was heart-wrenching: the beautiful beaches I had enjoyed so much were destroyed and abandoned as dirty mud marshes. Mud covered buildings up to their fourth floor. Brick homes had been destroyed by the landslides, displacing all remnants of normal life. Horrible smells and flies infected the area. The air was thick and filthy, and the reigning misery overpowered every breath. Those who had no place to go dug holes above their buried homes, cleared the waste inside, and molded a pit with room enough to sleep. The shelters were not equipped with the basics necessary for sleeping, cooking, and eating. The area was totally unsanitary, and people felt abandoned with no hope, no future. This is the true story of an oil-producing country once considered the jewel of the Caribbean.

In the midst of this misery, Chávez"s government refused much-needed equipment that was offered by the U.S. Why? The Chavistas claimed any U.S. help would be a front for a military invasion. Chávez has prevented the resuscitation of Vargas by limiting the ability to open a viable road network. He has also ignored the need for reconstruction in the region.

Today, nearly a decade after the tragedy, I"m appalled to see how the government has failed to create the infrastructure needed to rebuild Vargas and promote economic development. Thousands of displaced poor people are still waiting for the government to fulfill its promise to rebuild their homes. There are no resources allocated for rebuilding Vargas. However, Chávez, who insists that "being rich is bad," spent $65 million on a private jet for his personal use while the poor people of Vargas remain in dire need of basic housing.

The Savior of the Poor?

Chávez has claimed to be the savior of the poor. In reality, he has used them as a political tool to gain power. His neo-communist and militarist model continues to be funded by oil wealth that belongs to all Venezuelans. While PDVSA plays a major role in the Chávez revolution in Venezuela, Citgo is used as his political instrument in the U.S. The PDVSA and Citgo profits are then used by Chávez to buy political loyalty.

Before Chávez took over in 1999, when oil was selling for about $10 per barrel, PDVSA was the world"s second-largest energy company and one of the leading foreign suppliers of crude oil and refined petroleum products to the U.S. Under Chávez, with oil selling for over $100, Venezuelan oil production has fallen almost 50 percent.

Never in Venezuela"s history has there been such rampant and shameless corruption. According to Domingo Maza Zavala, former director of the Central Bank of Venezuela, "Now, in Venezuela, there is more poverty than there was before Chávez."

There are also serious problems in the healthcare system. From the 1960s to the "80s, my mother worked for the Instituto Venezolano de Seguro Sociales (I.V.S.S.), the public healthcare system. Even though it faced problems before Chávez took office, the I.V.S.S. was able to serve its constituency and offered outpatient medical services, surgery, and hospitalization, as well as free prescriptions. While far from perfect, the agency was innovative. My mother used to get excited about the new technology and equipment purchased by the I.V.S.S. to provide better and faster service.

In March 2003, the Chávez government adopted what they called "socialist" innovations in healthcare, but completely failed to maintain basic medical functions. Instead of supporting the existing public health programs, Chávez built a parallel health program, Barrio Adentro, which features 11,000 community modules (one-room clinics) staffed mainly by Cuban doctors. The system diverts resources and equipment from the I.V.S.S. public hospitals, where the public still goes for emergency and maternity care and for most major and elective surgeries. There are not enough beds for patients, and often two patients share a bed. Two or three newborns may share the same incubator. Supplies are no longer available, and fewer doctors work for the public system due to low wages. Patients are required to bring their own sheets and bandages. According to UNICEF, since the mid-1990s the childbirth mortality rate has risen 18 percent, to 59 in every 100,000 deliveries. Between 1998 (the year before Chávez took office) and 2007, cases of malaria nearly doubled.

Today, Venezuela"s public health system is fatally deteriorating due to lack of resources and corrupt accounting. The finances of Barrio Adentro are mismanaged and disorganized, making it impossible to determine its efficiency.

Meanwhile, the once-amicable climate of cooperation among the Venezuelan people is being extinguished by violence, a consequence of the lack of rule of law. Today the air is thick with fear as brainwashed Chavistas now differentiate among skin colors. It horrifies me to see racism and hatred dividing families where friends and family once felt free to hold different opinions and political views. It used to be we could passionately support opposing campaigns and still enjoy a meal together. This is no longer the case, as Chávez"s goal of imposing "his revolution" infects the country. I regret that my grown children cannot experience the same beauty and serenity that up to a decade ago I was so proud of.

When I was growing up I remember walking to school every morning, book-bag in hand, laughing with my friends. My biggest concern was getting to school on time. Today, children cannot step outside without worrying about being assaulted, losing a leg or even their lives over a $60 pair of Nikes. My school days were filled with assignments that encouraged creative thought. Through projects, plays, books, and foundational literature like Moral y Luces, I learned traditional subjects infused with respect and love for my country.

Today, Chávez imposes his Bolivarian curriculum, which intends to promote Chavista ideology and eliminate the democratic history of Venezuela. Instead of focusing on educational standards, schools today are becoming miniature military boot camps. It is no surprise that literacy rates are dropping. Children with green uniforms and red berets are handling guns and shouting, "Fatherland, Socialism or Death."

This horrifying phenomenon is fueled by Chávez"s determination to condition the Venezuelan youth into believing his own skewed interpretation of history, through which they will likely become little soldiers for his cause.

The Future

In November, the Chávez regime will allow political parties to receive public financing to promote the campaigns leading up to the gubernatorial and mayoral elections. That will likely mean that some opposition politicians will be elected. And that will allow Chávez to declare that he is a democrat and that the opposition is governing with him.

But next year Chávez is expected to bring in regional vice presidents (established in the constitutional reform rejected in the December 2007 referendum) to exert control over the newly elected opposition governors and mayors. Indeed, as long as Chávez controls the electoral system, he will stay in power. If you don"t believe that, take a look at his adviser, Fidel Castro. .

Cristal Montañéz is the international coordinator for RECIVEX, Resistencia Civil de Venezolanos en al Exterior.





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