VENEZUELA DIARY

For purposes of this article, I have to admit that I travelled to Venezuela not as a tourist but as an Election Observer for the Accompaniment Programme that their Chief Election Commissioner Dr. Tibisay Lucena Ramírez had invited me to attend in April. However, in the process of being in Caracas. I was able to get glimpses into a people and places that are a fascinating mix of the sons of the soil and the Spanish conquistadores of the 17th century.

But first a word about the elections. On April 14th, the Venezuelan electorate went to the polls to choose between the legendary Hugo Chavez's anointed successor Nicolas Maduro (who became Acting President after Chavez died of cancer) and Henrique Capriles. Widely expected to win by a large majority, Nicolas Maduro won by a much narrower margin of about 3 lakh votes. The election process was fair and transparent, and the Venezuelan Election Commission used their own Electronic Voting Machines, declaring the results in the late night of polling day itself. India was honoured by being one of two Asian Election Commissions invited to witness the process. I was invited in my personal capacity as former CEC. The Carter Center representative was a notable observer.

In one of our field visits to witness elections rallies, we were fortunate to visit the historic centre of the city in the Old Town. Dominated by the National Library, Supreme Court and the Foreign Office, its piece de resistance was the stunning kneeling statue of the revered liberator (from Spanish rule), Simon Bolivar, positioned comparatively recently in the old Spanish Cathedral that dominates the Plaza. There was something for everyone in the square that afternoon: a tourist pageant made up of ladies and gentleman dressed in 17th century dress; a street play portraying a group of indigenous Venezuelan's protesting against Spanish rule, as well as balloons and icecream stalls for children accompanying their parents to the election rally.

Before the Spanish conquest, Venezuela was peopled by Indian tribes, mainly the Carib, Arawar and Chibcha. They had no use for cities; the land was bountiful and supported agriculture. Christopher Columbus heralded the European arrival in 1498. A later explorer found stilted houses standing in a lake reminiscent of Venice and named the new land Venezuela, or “Little Venice”. Between 1819 and 1825 Simon Bolivar was to liberate not only Venezuela but also Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule, conferring on him the status in those countries akin to Mahatma Gandhi.

Caracas, the capital, is a bustling city where the country's oil wealth (the largest proven oil reserves in the world) is on display ironically side by side with economic stagnation: epitomized in some ways for me by the many cars of my childhood: vintage Studebakers, Chevrolets, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles of the 1950's, somewhat patched up, running on fuel that is practically free! I passed many on a two hour drive up the mountains to an old relic of a town called Colonia Tovar, founded in 1843 by German settlers. Because of poor country roads and little communication it remained in a time warp until its rediscovery in the 50's . German style houses, beer halls and old fashioned German dresses felt like one had entered into a bygone age. Observers duties are usually enlivened by cultural shows in the evening. In Caracas, we enjoyed a recital by the renowned 120 strong National Youth and Children Symphony Orchestra. The Venezuelan Ambassador to India, Mme Milena Santana Ramirez on more than one occasion had given me the history of the youth Orchestra. This was no ordinary concert. The young musicians belonged to under privileged families and some would have drifted into lives of delinquency and crime. In 1975, an experiment was started to introduce them into the civilizing world of music. Gradually, a small center grew into an open university of specialized music, attracting renowned musicians to train them. The orchestra gained international acclaim. In 1993, it received the UNESCO International Award. The moving spirit was (and is) Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, himself the recipient of international acclaim. In the last 35 years and more he has used music to transform thousands of young lives. In our country a man like him would be deserving of at least a Padma Bhushan, all the more deserving because he himself is so self-effacing.

(Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner and biographer of Mother Teresa)

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