Hugo Chavez graffiti Janette Beckman


I returned from Caracas on Monday, and yesterday’s announcement of the death of Hugo Chavez was not unexpected.  Just before we left last week, there was a close-up photo released of a smiling, rosy-cheeked Chavez and his daughters.  It was the first public photo and mention of Chavez in more than two months. And since the last photo I remember seeing of him had him bloated and hairless from chemo, I wondered when the photo had actually been taken.

Yesterday, VP Maduro went on a strange rant about “enemies” giving Chavez cancer, and that Chavez was battling a very severe, new infection. American diplomats were expelled. It seemed Venezuela was being prepared for dire news. Then today, the death announcement.

Janette Beckman and I went to Caracas last week at the invitation of Roberto Mata, who wanted us to work with the students of his photography school (the Roberto Mata Taller de Fotographia), teaching “Street Photography and Youth Culture” (our idea).  We didn’t know what to expect, but the looming uncertainty about the health of Chavez, and the basic uncertainty of life in Venezuela colored all that went on for the week we were there.

Caracas is a city that seems to have so much potential—it looks like it should be a glistening international center of culture and commerce.  Yet it is standing still. With the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela should be bustling. But production is down under Chavez, and a myriad of other problems, including a sharp division between rich and poor, and unrelenting violence, has deeply hurt the country.

Since oil is so cheap, Caracas is jammed with cars and motorcycles. Traffic is terrible. Several years ago Chavez cut off imports of new cars, so you pass large car dealerships that are completely empty. Many car companies have left the country.

As we drove around the city on our first day (you don’t walk ever, it’s too dangerous), the motorbikes zoomed past from all sides at a crazy, frightening pace.  But it’s the fastest way to travel. We were not allowed to roll down our windows, so for several hours we were in a bubble: a very strange way to view this city.  As a result, it was a strange emotionless experience for me. There was graffiti everywhere, very colorful, much of it focused on Chavez.

The city has incredible architecture—every building is different.  I found it fascinating. Some of the office buildings have been taken over by squatters with the tacit approval of the government (you’ve probably read about the “Tower of David”). You see residential buildings painted red, built by the government. Many of the buildings have balconies with plants exploding out from them. It makes for a beautiful sight. But the old buildings downtown are filthy, and if you didn’t see people walking around, it would look sort of apocalyptic.

Janette and I were staying in a lovely hotel near the mountain (Altavista). It was strange to discover as we drove around that there were businesses behind the walls, since without signs or addresses you would never know anything was going on there. The mountain is a national park, and so there is no development on it.  But there is a now abandoned hotel on the very top that fascinated me. Known as Hotel Humboldt, it was designed by Tomas Jose Sanabria in 1956. The next time I am in Caracas, I want to go there.

Later that first night we were treated to a wonderful dinner party at Roberto’s home. I fell in love with the place—it was my dream of a place to live. It’s a large, open art-filled space with a huge front terrace and large back patio overlooking hills of quiet, blinking home lights. It’s hard to adequately describe how perfect it was. Roberto and his wife, Lisa, treated us to their friends and a great meal. That was a special treat. But it was sad to hear that because of the fear of kidnapping, they lived in essentially a closed community where their youngest son, Ignacio, was never allowed to go out to ride a bike, or play alone.

We went to bed very late that first night, not sure of what to think, but excited to find out what would come next.

I will be blogging each day of our visit for the next week, so stay tuned for more, including being on radio shows, meeting rappers, going behind the counter of a popular bakery, eating arepas and cachapas, watching Tuki dancers and much, much more.

Chavez is dead CNN

Graffiti image by Janette Beckman