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For the poor he was a hero, bringing a much-needed redistribution of wealth. For others he was a tyrant, wrecking the economy with populist policies. Either way, he made an indelible impression on his beautiful country, Venezuela (pictured), as a I discovered six years ago.
It struck me then that Caracas was suffering one of the greatest hangovers in Latin American history. It's an impressive sight. At the height of a ski resort, a feast of old skyscrapers, statues, neon and American cars sprawls across the mountains. Since the discovery of oil in the twenties, almost three million Venezuelans had clambered up here, or one in ten of the populace. For years, they'd spent wildly, played baseball and shopped in Miami. Then, in 1994, the economy had crashed, and all that was left were the fancy houses and almost three million colour TVs.
Back then, Chavez was a new(ish) face amongst the peeling paint. With his meaty gaucho features, he was often depicted in his paratrooper’s beret. To those now living in cardboard, he was a saviour, but to everyone else, he was the Arch Party Pooper. Everywhere his banners proclaimed the revolution. Our first evening, we watched his nightly TV show. He was still spouting slogans when we returned from dinner three hours later. Venezuela, he declared, will be the New Cuba.
Caraqueños seemed to take all this in their stride. Their city was far too spectacular to let a war of words upset them. So, the party went on. People were just less flashy . Although our hotel was as stylish as anything before (black uniforms and Perspex chairs), it was smaller and – even in its name (‘The Hotel’) – it seemed to be courting obscurity. For others, the party went on in a world of their own. Vendors ran in and out of the traffic selling alcopops. Meanwhile, the middle classes had simply shifted their activities into a parallel black market. But most self-contained of all were those of the Maria Lionza cult. They risked a three-lane highway to worship their idol, a voluptuous naked goddess astride a rampant tapir.
I was fascinated by Venezuela’s little, paper revolution. It alone justifiesd our visit – although Americans didn't think so. To them, the word ‘socialism’ sounds like anthrax or an approaching storm. They’d fled, taking with them a hefty chunk of the tourist trade. Back in 1912, thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle, Venezuela achieved stardom as 'The Lost World'. Was it now about to disappear for real? It appears not.