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Venezuela's Revolutionary Tourists

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The crime-ridden barrio of Petare on Caracas' east side is, for obvious reasons, not considered much of a tourist destination. The rundown neighborhood is packed with cinder-block shacks, and its streets are filled with sewage. Most vacationers in Venezuela would opt for the country's tropical Caribbean beaches. That's why neighbors peered out of their windows inquisitively when a recent caravan of Americans climbed up the steep slopes of the country's largest barrio, which many middle- and upper-class Venezuelans dare not enter. The group, from professors to real estate agents, ages 27 to 62, sat on the rooftop of one Petare home listening to the barrio's social leaders praise President Hugo Chavez.

The visit was just one stop on the group's $1,300 two-week "reality tour" of Chavez's Venezuela, organized by the San Francisco-based NGO Global Exchange. It was a clear sign that Venezuela, much like Cuba in the 1960s or Nicaragua in the 1980s, is fast becoming a destination for foreign leftists. As a diplomatic battle between Venezuela and the U.S. intensifies — with Washington banning any arms sales to Chavez and his government in turn threatening to sell fighter jets to Iran — Americans unhappy with the Bush Administration are eager to witness with their own eyes Chavez's oil-funded socialist revolution.

Unlike the shoestring backpackers who brave Venezuela on their own, some political tourists pay groups like Global Exchange to do the legwork. The human rights group is better known for organizing protests against the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. But in January, Global Exchange brought 175 tourists to Venezuela, lodging them in four- and five-star hotels — and it has at least one trip scheduled per month for the rest of the year. Milco Chacoa, a tour guide for the NGO, says visitors are captivated by Chavez. "They have a huge interest in seeing Chavez," he said. "To shake his hand or give him a hug would be almost a dream." But another Venezuelan tour guide said he thought the Americans were "crazy" for spending their vacation time in Venezuela's poor and dangerous barrios.

"We hope to serve as spokesmen to tell you the truth about our communities," Miguel Romero, a community organizer, told the Global Exchange group in Petare. "With other governments we had to keep our mouths closed. But this president has given us the power to fight." Romero tells the Americans that Chavez has helped eradicate illiteracy in the barrio, assisted residents fighting to get legal titles to their land and supported cooperatives that are helping more people get work. His neighbor, who lacked a basic education but now studies under a government-sponsored education program, says she will soon be working thanks to the president. One American, visibly moved by the presentation, shouted, "Let the revolution continue!" Another opened his wallet abruptly during the talk and offered $10 to a community speaker, who kindly refused.

Actor Danny Glover, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and U.S. anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, among others, have recently visited Caracas as Chavez supporters. A group of Americans also appeared on Chavezĺs Sunday television show to thank him for setting up a fuel subsidy program to supply cheap heating oil to poor families in the northeast U.S. last winter; on Monday Chavez pledged to expand the program to help Europe's poor as well. Other foreigners like Jim McLlroy, a retired government worker from Australia, have recently moved to Caracas to write about Venezuelaĺs political movement. "Venezuela is an inspiration to people from around the world," said McLlroy, who writes from Caracas for the publication Green Left Weekly. "Venezuela is not on the normal tourist map in Latin America. But I think the tourism industry will be an offshoot of the success of the political revolution."

Leoncio Barrios, a professor of social psychology at the Central University of Venezuela, says the country is an exotic attraction for left-leaning foreigners because it says it is adopting socialism as a model for the 21st century. Even vendors are capitalizing on the influx of political tourists. They sell Chavez paraphernalia on the streets of Caracas, ranging from hats to talking Chavez dolls. One poster even shows the leader riding a horse next to Jesus Christ.

Although the ministry of tourism does not measure political tourism, it says the number of foreign tourists visiting Venezuela grew by 17 percent between 2001 and 2005, despite political strife and national strikes during that period. "There is something happening here," said Renee Kasinsky, 62, a professor of sociology in Boston. "I went to Cuba when it was 1962, two years after the revolution. And it feels like temporarily the clock has turned back to the '60s and '70s."