Time Out of Joint in Venezuela

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Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / Getty

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

August may have been one of the wackiest months in Venezuela's recent history — and that's saying a lot in a country where the President insists that capitalism must be abolished even as the bars of the capital are filled night after night with people quaffing imported whisky and showing off breast implants. Despite massive oil profits, eggs have been absent from the shelves of my local supermarket for so many months that their designated shelf has been given over to Tupperware. The mayor of Caracas has been filmed getting into a short brawl with fans at an international soccer tournament, and has proposed to deal with rampant crime by floating blimps with crime-detecting cameras in the sky. Venezuela has never been wanting for weirdness; even so, August was a stellar month.


The recent news has been dominated by President Hugo Chavez's proposal for constitutional reform, outlined in a booming speech at the National Assembly that lasted so late into the night that lawmakers couldn't help but tuck into a bunch of empanadas in the legislative chamber. In the speech, whose transcript runs to 61 pages, Chavez ventured into the peculiar with a proposal to build artificial islands in order to consolidate Venezuela's presence in the Caribbean. And then, of course, there was his proposal to remove presidential term limits as well as to increase the term of office from six to seven years. That would allow Chavez to run for reelection again in 2012, although he has often declared his ambition to govern until at least 2021.

The legislature that heard Chavez's speech is itself an odd creature: Every member is allied with the President, although their workload was considerably reduced at the start of this year when Chavez began ruling by decree. The legislature is also given a rather bohemian tint by the fact that it has its own theater troupe. On the evening of Chavez's marathon address, an actor with garments evoking a past century pranced around the floor of the legislature sporting an anguished look. He shook his fists and waved his arms, pleading loudly with the crowd. He was portraying independence hero Simon Bolivar, reciting some of the Liberator's most famous speeches. "Moral y luces are our first needs," he pleaded. "A people isn't satisfied being free and strong, but wants to be virtuous." The idea of "moral y luces," roughly translated as "morals and enlightenment," was intended by Bolivar to convey that Venezuela, while free from Spanish rule, still needed plenty of work in the ethics department.

Morality notwithstanding, the headlines of the past month remind us that the land of the Liberator still knows plenty of shady deals after all these years. In early August, a little-known Venezuelan businessman, Guido Antonini Wilson, was caught carrying a briefcase with nearly $800,000 in cash on a private flight from Caracas to Buenos Aires. The flight was chartered by the Argentine state oil company, and officials from that firm and from the Venezuelan state oil company had been on board. The incident has been an embarrassment in Buenos Aires, where the government was already under fire on corruption allegations, and it led to resignations in both governments. The Venezuelan government has tried to distance itself from the case, declaring that it was the responsibility of police and customs. Argentine authorities have ordered the arrest of Antonini, but no one has explained where the money came from or what it was for.

And the wacky bits kept coming. Shortly after the devastating earthquake that leveled the Peruvian city of Pisco, cans of tuna bearing pictures of Chavez and former leftist Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala were handed out as relief aid. The Venezuelan government said it had no idea how the cans got there; state television even interviewed a pro-Chavez artist who bizarrely suggested that the tuna cans were, in fact, a "racist" statement inciting support for the invasion of Iraq. That was too much for the show's moderator, who replied that they were actually no more than tuna cans. Still, this would hardly be the first time free food has come in pro-Chavez packaging. In June, mothers complained that an elementary school in Caracas was handing out red "socialist" lunch boxes on which were painted the slogan "With Chavez, only one government" and the logo of the Chavista mayor's office.

Venezuelan officials, meanwhile, continued their long-standing campaign against "imperialist" media by claiming that the briefcase episode had been embellished to make Caracas look bad, and that "manipulation" by the media was behind the tuna can episode. Then, responding to a critical editorial, the communication ministry devoted an entire press release to calling the New York Times "nothing more than of one the media arms of the Bush government." Lastly, on his own Sunday talk show, Chavez criticized a correspondent from the British newspaper The Guardian for asking a question about term limits. Instead of answering his question, the President rambled on about the evils of the British monarchy and demanded the reporter's opinion on the matter. The reporter noted that he was actually Irish and tried to get the President back on track, but Chavez only chastised him for not caring about the issue of monarchy.

But the Chavez announcement that most flabbergasted the international media in a month of strange goings-on was his proclamation that Venezuela will move its time zone back by a half hour, starting in the third week of September. The government expects the measure to give Venezuelans a more equitable distribution of sunlight and, in the words of science and technology minister Hector Navarro, help "organize the country and social life in a more rational manner." Upon hearing the proclamation, a U.S. newspaper suggested recent headlines made the Caracas press read like The Onion, and drew comparisons between Venezuela and Woody Allen's film Bananas. In that movie, Allen's revolutionary hero-turned-president declares that from now on his people must change their underwear every half hour and wear it on the outside "so we can check." In Venezuela this past August, it has certainly felt as if anything is possible.