Caracas, Venezuela: Bolivar’s proud city

Venezuela is a South American giant just a few miles off the coast of Trinidad, so close to the Caribbean and so far. Jeremy Taylor visits her capital, Caracas, and finds a bustling metropolis with much to offer her neighbours

  • Lata Bay, on the central coast. Photograph by Ramon Rangel
  • Typical homes in the fishing village of Los Roques. Photograph by Ramon Rangel
  • Avila National Park seen from Caracas. Photograph by Ramon Rangel
  • Angel Falls, Canaima National Park. Photograph by Ramon Rangel
  • Porlamar, Margarita. Photograph by Ramon Rangel
  • Plaza Bolivar, Caracas. Photograph by Ramon Rangel
  • Hotel on the beach, Margarita Island. Photograph by Ramon Rangel
  • Archipelago Los Roques National Park. Photograph by Ramon Rangel
  • National Pantheon, Caracas. Photograph by Ramon Rangel

“In Venezuela is best of everything,” said Luis. We were sitting on a bench in a corner of Plaza Bolivar, the heart of old Caracas, watching the pigeons strut upon the statue of the liberator and his rearing horse in the centre of the square. Dappled morning sunlight filtered through the trees. Nearby, a shoeshine man in official municipal uniform knelt to buff some elegant brown shoes. They belonged to an old man leaning back in a chair, looking as if he had just left his hacienda to come into town and finish some business: thin white hair slicked back, hands mottled with age spots as he gripped his newspaper, looking at no one.

“Yes,” said Luis. “The best. The tallest waterfall. The longest cable car. The tallest buildings. The best Children’s Museum. The most oil. The best food. And” – a statuesque brunette stalked past in a tight short skirt – “the beautiful legs! Most important in Venezuela.” We watched as the legs crossed the square. Not wishing to appear sexist, Luis added generously: “And, for the ladies, more men than ladies in Venezuela! You know the last Mister Universe was Mister Venezuela?”

I did not know that. I did not know there was a Mister Universe.

On the far side of the square, four Amerindian musicians played haunting music on flutes and pan-pipes under a bank’s shady arcade. I gave Luis’s hypothesis due consideration. He made everything in Caracas sound bigger and better and more beautiful than anywhere on earth. He did not just brim with enthusiasm for his city and country: he overflowed with it. Later, in case I had missed the point, he gave me a photo-copied list headed Highlights. It began:

• Largest lake in South America: Lago de Maracaibo, 4,968 square miles.
• Longest and highest aerial cable-car in the world: Merida, 8.5 miles.
• The largest marine archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean: Los Roques, 888 square miles.
• The largest bank for fishing Sailfish Marlins in all the Atlantic: the grounds of Macuto.
• The highest waterfalls in the world: Angel Falls, 0.5 mile.

There were 19 more items on the list. They included the world’s oldest formation (the 2-billion-year-old table-top mountains of the Guayana region), the Caribbean’s highest mountains (in the Venezuelan Andes), and the earliest Spanish city still in existence in the Americas (Cumana).
Luis beamed. “You see?”

 

Wherever we went, Luis saved me from linguistic embarrassment. I had made the mistake of going to Caracas without knowing Spanish. I would laboriously recite from my phrase-book in careful Castilian, a language that seemed unrelated to South American Spanish, and people would smile pityingly and reply in a torrent of words that bore no relation to anything I could identify in the index. Caracas made few concessions to poor non-Hispanic barbarians. My best phrases were no comprendo and habla ingles?

And yet Venezuela and the English-speaking Caribbean are close neighbours; they come as close as seven miles to each other. Trinidad, had it not been for the impudent British snatching it from Spain in 1797, would be a Spanish-speaking Venezuelan province today, like Margarita. Once it was even joined to Venezuela. Its fishermen and Venezuela’s Guardia Nacional still eye each other warily across the Gulf of Paria; its Christmas music, parang (la parranda), is based on Venezuelan carols and rhythms, accompanied by the little four-stringed guitar that both countries call cuacro; its Christmas pascelles are Venezuelan hallacas.

The Caribbean is much more Spanish than English: there are about five million English speakers in the region, and 43 million Spanish speakers, if you include Venezuela (but not Colombia or Central America). Venezuela has far more Caribbean coastline than almost any island – more than 2,800km of it, generously sprinkled with glorious beaches. It has a whole Caribbean archipelago of its own – 72 Caribbean offshore islands.

And yet, they remain two different worlds, Anglophone and Hispanic; shoulder to shoulder, separated not by geography but by habit of language and culture, both looking towards North America and Europe rather than at each other.

 

BWIA Express’s daily morning flight to Caracas heads west over the grey waters of the Gulf of Paria, where in 1498 Columbus slowly realised that he was looking not at another island but at a vast continent. It crosses flat marshy estuaries, then the hills of the Paria and Araya peninsulas, reaching the sea again near Cumana, the oldest Spanishtown in Venezuela (1520). The coastal mountains rear up straight from the shore, looking much as they must have done 500 years ago, except for the bright ribbon of road winding along beside the Caribbean and the handful of small towns with their marinas and beaches.

It was not until the 1560s that Spanish settlers from Margarita penetrated the massive coastal mountains to the west and discovered the cool and sheltered valley behind them. The city they established there in 1567, after some years of skirmishing with rightly indignant Caracas Indians (who had taken the name of a wild grass growing on the banks of the valley’s rivers), was neatly arranged around the central square, now known as Plaza Bolivar.

It was a magnificent setting for a city. Nearly a thousand metres above the sea, the valley runs east-west for over 20 kilometers, with the looming bulk of Monte Avila along its northern side. You can’t get badly lost in Caracas because the mountain is inescapable; sometimes dark and cloud-covered’ sometimes beautiful in the morning or evening light, but always, massively, there.

Today’s Caracas is a big city by world standards: the books say four or five million; Luis, citing the last census, insisted on eight million, including all the sprawling suburbs and swallowed-up towns. It fills the entire valley, spilling out at either end and creeping up the hillsides, sometimes crowned with enormous billboards. There’s not much of the old town’s colonial flavour left: modern Caracas is concrete, Americanised, loud, modern and restless, the fastest-growing city in South America.

It was the oil that sparked that off: discovered in Maracaibo in 1914, oil catapulted Venezuela into decades of rapid growth. Caracas’s avenues are choked with impatient traffic, and overshadowed by miles of tower blocks, some handsome and elegant, others, well, not. Sidewalks are jammed with busy men and elegant ladies in business suits chattering into cell phones, making walking almost as hazardous as driving. Grandiose new shopping complexes and hotels sprout in every direction. Some of the city’s most important facilities are less than 20 years old – the subway system and the arts complexes around the Parque Central were only finished for the 200th anniversary of the Liberator’s birth in 1983.

There was a solemn mass in progress in the cathedral on the corner of Plaza Bolivar: three mitred bishops before the gilded altar amid clouds of incense, the devotees spilling into the broad collonaded side aisles beneath the stained glass windows.

Luis was scornful of the building. He said it was a “replacement”. His favourite was the church of San Francisco, a couple of blocks to the south, the oldest of Caracas’s great churches, where in 1813 Bolivar received his title, El Libertador.

But all Caracas’s grand public buildings have an element of “replacement” about them. The city was razed to the ground before it was 50 years old, and has been shattered by three major earthquakes since then. The cathedral was destroyed in 1641, replaced in 1665-1713 and remodelled in the 19th century. San Francisco itself, originally built in the 1570s, was rebuilt in 1641 and has been extensively renovated since.

The area around Plaza Bolivar is the core of the old Spanish town. Today, it is traffic-free: several blocks of pedestrian-only shopping, three great churches, museums, state buildings. Sidewalk musicians were playing haunting flutes and harps, cuatros and guitars.

In the Capitol building where Venezuela’s Congress sits, there was a palpable sense of unease: the new president, Colonel Hugo Chavez, was planning to set up a separate Constituent Assembly. Caracas was quietly nervous about President Chavez, sympathizing with the need for radical change, uneasy about where it might lead. Already, in some of the states beyond the capital, people were moving onto unused land, responding to the President’s much-expressed concern for the dispossessed. “We wait and see,” everyone said.

In Caracas the Liberator is everywhere. His name is the currency, the highest peak, the oldest plaza, the main airport. In the Casa Natal you can see the exact spot where he was born – not the exact bed, but a replica. The museum next door is devoted to him; the Bolivar country home is a few blocks away. Riding his stallion, he rears up in the middle of Plaza Bolivar, where every morning a fresh bouquet of flowers is laid in his honour. In the Cathedral, he lies weeping over the bodies of his parents and his Spanish wife, who died of yellow fever only eight months after marriage. His portrait is everywhere; sometimes he looks white and Hispanic, sometimes mestizo, but always swarthy, lean and intent, handsome in his black and red military uniform, his cloak swirling around him. He has become a mythic figure of power and authority.

Simon Bolivar, El Libertador, engineered freedom from colonial Spain not only for Venezuela but for most of western and northern South America. His vision was of a free, united America: Gran Colombia, a land stretching from La Paz to the mouth of the Orinoco. For a while, the liberated lands united under him. But all great political visions carry the seeds of their own destruction: Gran Colombia lasted less than a decade. It was too big, too unwieldy to control, and it soon began to fragment. Venezuela itself went its own way in 1830, and Bolivar, struggling against the tide, lost credibility, resigned as president, and died of tuberculosis in Colombia that December. He was only 47.

“There have been three great fools in history,” Bolivar remarked. “Jesus, Don Quixote, and me.” He knew that military campaigns could unite people, while peace would set them squabbling. “Those who plough the revolution plough the sea,” he wrote, a reflection that many other visionaries since then might have taken to heart.

Tito Puente was playing one night in the magnificent Teresa Carreno Theatre in Parque Central, along with that Cuban genius of a trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval. The theatre was packed; the little whitehaired figure of Puente darted around the stage, full of humour, beating away at drums and vibes while Sandoval, looking like a friendly bank manager in a grey suit, produced from his trumpet music from another world. “Tito, Tito!” the crowd chanted: “salsa, salsa!” Tito grinned and obliged.

The Hispanic cities of the Caribbean – Havana, San Juan, Santo Domingo – have magnificent museums, art galleries and performing centres into which good money is poured. They are lovingly maintained, used and cared for, as are the historic churches and public buildings, even when there seems to be nobody to visit them; and they are mostly free.

So it was in Caracas: huge collections of art, everything from Picassos to the latest daring Venezuelan installations; flourishing film and theatre; music ranging from joropo and corrido, pasaje and galeron, through brilliant and casual jazz in bars and restaurants and flamenco in some of the Spanish restaurants, to fullscale classical orchestras, some of them regular visitors from provincial cities.

That’s one of the great pleasures of Caracas. Another is the opportunity for gourmandising. You can eat yourself silly with every international cuisine imaginable, all served in fine style: Italian, Spanish, French, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Peruvian. “We have more variety here than anywhere else in South America,” Cesar Naranjo Ruiz, Vicepresidente at Corpoturismo, told me. “Only perhaps Sao Paulo can offer such diversity.” Several districts of Caracas have developed their own ethnic characters: Spanish in La Candelaria, Italian in La Carlotta, French in Las Mercedes.

“But what about Venezuelan food?” I asked Luis. So we drove into the southern suburbs, to the Vistarroyo restaurant in Macaracuay, surrounded by hills. Luis ordered cachapa (corn pancake with cheese), yuca (cassava), beef (only red meat for him, well done for me), chorizo (sausage), with guasacaca sauce and picante (hot sauce); and Polar or the stronger Solera beers and sangria (“that’s made from beer too,” he claimed). Then tres leches, bienmesabe (a small trifle, with coconut and rum), arroz con leche, and coffee – no guayollo, Luis insisted, that’s American-style coffee, weak and watery; none of this cafe marron or cafe con leche either; only carajillo (black with liquor) or strong Spanish espresso would do. It was the best meal I had in Caracas.

Fruit juices, fruit desserts, ice-cream; tapas bars and panerias; these were other pleasures, all over Caracas. Passion-fruit juice, strawberry, blackberry, peach; strong, rich and pure. Arepas, cachapas, empanadas; sancocho stew and hervido soup; stuffed lechon, beef muchacho and pabellon criollo.

A third big pleasure in Caracas is its green areas. You could spend some pleasant days in the city parks, like the Parque Los Caobos next to the Bellas Artes and science museums, the Botanical Gardens, and the huge Parque del Este; there are three zoos, one of them easy to reach on the metro (Parque Zoologico de Caricuao, near the Zoologico station).

 

I was sorry to find Caracas abandoning that most civilized of Mediterranean habits, the siesta: a rest after lunch, from one to three or thereabouts, when things close down to let the hottest time of day pass in peace. Most of the museums and galleries still close, as do government offices, but now, like everywhere else, commercial activity continues all day, and the big shopping centres open late and sometimes on Sundays.

People are a bit apologetic about the bull-fighting too, though it still flourishes in season and Caracas has a bullring seating 27,000. One night there was bullfighting on television, among the Spanish-dubbed re-runs of Xena and The Fresh Prince of Belair. The angry snorting bull paced the narrow corridor behind the arena. Then he was loose, pawing the ground and looking for his enemies, who darted from their hiding-places to plant their ribboned spears in his spine. They rode well-padded horses to thrust into the bull from a height. They danced around him as the blood drained down his flank, methodically taunting, feinting, teasing and tormenting. Then at last the coup de grace, the tormentors crowding around to pen the animal in as he fell to his knees, keeled over in a bloody heap and was dragged away by horses. The crowd roared, the band played; elegant men with cigars and ladies in designer outfits discussed the grace and skill of the matador and waited for the next bull. Outside the stadium, the crowd reached out to touch the triumphant matador like a god.

I found out afterwards that the TV programme came from Spain. Luis played it down. Only occasional now, he said, more people are against it, animal rights, conservation . . . But I could see the fascination still, behind the well-rehearsed ritual. Some cultures invent grotesque villains and monsters and hunt them down on TV or with scientific precision bomb them. Others let loose half a ton of primal aggression and gracefully, daringly, reduce it to a heap of bloody meat. This is a lesson for bulls: don’t just charge the red cape that annoys you so much; always look to see who is holding it, who needs to destroy you to purge his primal fears.

 

DOING BUSINESS

Although Venezuela lies so close to the Caribbean islands, and is a large market of 23 million, there is surprising little commerce between them – and plenty of scope for more. Trinidad and Tobago, for example, takes 12 % of its exports from Venezuela, though mostly in the form of crude oil; but less than 2% of its own exports go to Venezuela. Historic language and cultural barriers must take most of the blame.

Venezuela’s much-touted economic difficulties since the early 1980s stem mainly from failure to adjust after the end of the oil boom. This year is a crucial one for Venezuelans, who are waiting to see what the new populist president Hugo Chavez will do as he comes to grips with the realities of economic management and constitutional change. The economy is expected to contract this year, and further adjustments in the rate for the “over-valued Bolivar” are forecast. There are intractable fiscal and current account deficits, inflation is high though falling, and there are serious problems with unemployment and wealth distribution.

But hotel lobbies are jammed with suited businessmen discussing bargaining tactics.

Venezuela is the biggest South American oil producer, the United States’s biggest supplier, and has the biggest reserves in the western hemisphere. It also has the world’s 7th largest natural gas reserves. The major industries are petrochemicals, hydro-electricity, coal, bauxite/aluminium, gold,
iron and steel. There are well-established manufacturing industries – textiles and clothing, shoes, paper, foodstuffs, vehicle assembly; agricultural
products include coffee, top quality cocoa (used in Swiss and French chocolate) and cotton.

Major changes are expected this year in incentives legislation, and the privatisation process is likely to speed up. A double taxation treaty and a bilateral investment treaty with the US are expected by the end of the year, in line with agreements already in place with most of Europe and South America. There is plenty of scope for expansion in tourism, and there are already several flourishing niches like medical and language tourism as well as mainstream and adventure tourism.

For the Caribbean, Venezuela represents a large market on its own, quite apart from its function as a gateway to South America, and it is surprising that business is not livelier. Trinidad and Tobago has a Partial Scope Agreement with Venezuela, though it only covers about 25 products, and is trying to establish a joint Chamber of Commerce. The English-speaking Caricom group has an agreement with Venezuela allowing preferential access for Caribbean products. BWIA operates daily flights, and (contrary to popular belief) there are sea freight services.

Both sides would be glad to see business links improve. At Conapri (Consejo Nacional de Promoci6n de Inversiones), the agency in Caracas that helps to match business interests in Venezuela with those outside, investment manager Ernesto Mata says: “We are pushing for investment in several areas, especially petrochemicals and agriculture – fishing, sugar, forestry, rice. Our privatisation process is well under way, involving the utilities, later maybe road construction and telecoms. We have the most liberal investment climate in South America, with enormous potential for recovery from the period of recession.”

Most Caricom countries maintain embassies in Caracas, and are also anxious to see commercial links improve, though little in the way of Caribbean goods and services is visible in Caracas. Trinidad and Tobago’s ambassador, Philip Sealy, says: “The Caribbean could be much more aggressive when it comes to Venezuela. There are trade fairs in Venezuela every year – come and exhibit! If you don’t come, nobody knows about you. Use the embassies more, give them your product literature. They can help you in all sorts of ways.”
Thanks to “Luis”; and to Ikira Tours, especially Waldo Gomez and Eglar Torres; the Caracas Hilton; and Corpoturismo, especially vice-president Cesar Naranjo Ruiz and Olga Ramirez

 

VENEZUELA FACTFILE

  • Getting there: Caracas is a major airline hub for South and Central America, just as Trinidad is for the Caribbean. BWIA Express flies between the two with a daily morning flight leaving Trinidad at 9.30 and leaving Caracas at 11.35. There are also several evening jet services
  • Airport: Simon Bolivar International; Maiquetia (domestic flights). 28km from Caracas
  • Size: 972,050 sq.km. (the size of Britain and France combined)
  • Structure: 22 states plus the federal district of Caracas
  • Population: 23m; black 8%, Indian 1- 2%, white 21%, the rest mixed. 53% under 25, 70% under 35. Unemployment 10-12%
  • Currency: Bolivar (floating, 579 to US$ in March 1999)
  • Time: Atlantic Standard Time (EST +1, GMT – 4)
  • Inflation: 1998: 37%
  • Economic growth: 1998: 0.3%
  • Getting around: The Caracas Metro is clean, fast, efficient, frequent, well-signed, and air-conditioned; this is by far the best way to get around. Tickets at each station (approx. US$ 4 for a multiabono ticket, 10 trips; approx. US$2 for 2 trips; pass your ticket through the turnstile at each end. Bolivars preferred). The main line runs east-west from Propatria to Palo Verde, through all the major centres, with two shorter lines running south from Capitolio to Zoologico and Las Adjuntas, and from Plaza Venezuela to El Valle.
  • Tourist information: Consejo de Turismo de Venezuela, Torre Oeste, Piso 35-37, Parque Central, Caracas; tel. 507-8607/ 8600