The Wall Street Journal

August 26, 2006

Chasing Chávez: The Other Havana

With tighter restrictions on Americans' travel to Cuba, Venezuela is marketed as an alternative
August 26, 2006; Page P1


RIO CHICO, Venezuela -- Judy Lubin, who runs a Rockville, Md.-based public-relations company for nonprofit groups, is taking her first vacation in four years. She's spending most of it here at the Rio Chico Hotel, a dingy, broken-down place that's surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. The shower is a pipe poking through the wall that spouts cold water. The town isn't in much better shape; the first business on the main street to open in the morning, at 8 a.m., is a liquor store.

Mixing Politics and Pleasure: The annual San Juan Festival in Curiepe.

For Ms. Lubin, who learned about the Venezuela trip when she looked for a Cuba vacation on the Internet, the Rio Chico Hotel is hardly her first choice for lodgings. But she and 15 other Americans are sacrificing comfort to take a look at a country mired in controversy. They want to see first-hand life under Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is well known for his populist rhetoric and pledges to use oil revenue to benefit poor people, as well as his courting of repressive regimes like Cuba and Iran.

"I'd never heard of 'Afro-Venezuelan' culture," says Ms. Lubin, of the term used by our tour operator for the impoverished black minority community that makes its home near Rio Chico. "Who are they? How are they treated here? I like being able to learn about things."

Political tourism, much like ecotourism, appeals to people looking to experience a place beyond its well-traveled routes. While in the past, some might have made such a trek to Cuba, tighter restrictions on "educational" travel imposed by the Bush administration in 2004 have limited these trips. The move was a bid to win Cuban-American voters in Miami in the lead up to the elections.

Now, some of the same Americans who would have visited Cuba are eyeing another politically controversial country whose leader is Fidel Castro's closest ally. Earlier this month, Mr. Chávez visited the bedridden Castro and met with interim president Raul Castro. Although the two countries differ in many ways -- Venezuela, for one, is a democracy, albeit a contentious and sometimes violent one -- Venezuela may strike some travelers as the new Cuba. And with Mr. Chávez's globetrotting attempts to form an anti-U.S. alliance making headlines lately, the country seemed like an apt choice to experience political tourism.

A Bolivarian school in Barlovento

Global Exchange is one of the few tour operators that lead political trips to countries around the world. It is decidedly left-leaning, which means its enthusiasm for Mr. Chávez tends to ignore criticism of his government for increasingly going down an autocratic path. "Something remarkable is happening in Venezuela," says an introduction to the tour on the group's Web site. "The lives of millions of Venezuelans are improving as historic wrongs are being righted." (Except for Israel, which as the cradle of Christianity gets tours from right-leaning religious groups, the American right has been less embracing of foreign political travel.)

Indeed, my tour primarily comprised visits to see projects that purportedly demonstrate how oil revenues are making life better for the large number of impoverished Venezuelans -- although critics say the billions of dollars being spent are buying political loyalty without attempting to provide real solutions to the country's endemic problems. For instance, we spent a considerable amount of time in poor communities of black Venezuelans, descendents of African slaves. We also visited a community center involved in adult education in Caracas with a portrait of Che Guevara painted on the outside wall, and a women's sewing cooperative established with low-interest government loans.

Global Exchange's tour-group hotel in Rio Chico

Despite this, leaders of the group also went out of their way to find us different points of view, including a talk with a member of the Chávez opposition. Global Exchange arranges its own itineraries, and no money goes into government coffers.

Though it's hardly a mass-market product -- last year, 80 visitors went on five trips to Venezuela -- Global Exchange says the program is gaining traction, with 400 people going on 17 trips this year. And while it used to send as many as six tours a month to Cuba, it's offering only a handful this year. "Once Bush says Venezuela is a threat to the hemisphere, people want to see for themselves what is happening," says Zach Hurwitz, who heads the Latin American program for Global Exchange.

For Venezuela, the additional tourism is looked upon as a source of national pride, as well as a way to convince Americans of the earnestness of Mr. Chávez's self-styled Bolívarian revolution, aimed at spreading socialism throughout Latin America. Mr. Chávez, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, doesn't miss a chance to demonstrate that oil is transforming the world's geopolitical scene. As one manifestation, Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's national oil company, last winter provided deeply discounted heating oil to some low-income residents of New York and Philadelphia.


My tour group was not dominated by knee-jerk leftists -- it included a diverse array from an economist to a private investigator and a psychotherapist. David Mokofsky, a statistician for the San Francisco Police Department, notes that "here we're actually hearing Venezuelans answer questions."

How much we were learning on our trip, though, is a question with no easy answer. For a properly skeptical traveler the persuasiveness of all this is debatable. To visit a few projects is a far cry from concluding that oil revenue is succeeding in making life better for poor Venezuelans.

On the positive side, our hosts didn't object to critical questions, either, and they at least tried to answer them. The places we saw were impressive. In Barlovento, home of the black fishermen, we toured an airy and cheerful elementary school. At a year-old, 170-member women's sewing cooperative we met women proud of being able to earn a decent living and participate in management decisions.


CARACAS HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS: There are two five-star hotels worth considering. Hotel Gran Melia Caracas has rooms starting at $175. ( Rooms at JW Marriott are from $159. (Tel: 011-58-212-957-2222). The favorite Caracas restaurant of Emily Kurland, a Global Exchange tour leader, is La Cita, which offers upscale Spanish seafood. (Tel: 011-58-212-572-8180.) It's advisable to take the warnings about crime seriously and not walk around alone after dark.
GETTING AROUND: Arturo Perez, who speaks fluent English and often serves as a driver for Global Exchange customers, can be hired as a driver and guide on personal tours for $40 a day. Tours can include trips to low-income neighborhoods and community centers to meet locals. (Tel: 011-58-414-331-6932).
OUT OF CARACAS: Three of the best-known tourist spots in Venezuela won't give you much of an insight into the policies of the Chávez administration. But you will experience the three highlights of Venezuela's natural setting: jungles, mountains and beaches. Angel Falls, one of the world's tallest waterfalls, is surrounded by jungle and can be reached only by plane. Fly from Caracas to the town of Canaima and take a boat or a sightseeing flight to the falls. Merida, a pleasant university town, is surrounded by mountains, and tour agencies there offer hiking, rafting and mountain-biking trips. Archipielago Los Roques is a group of islands off the Caribbean coast famous for snorkeling and scuba diving.

But were these typical of what's going on in Venezuela, and are they viable enough to provide a model for combating the poverty endemic to Latin America? On that question, the tour provided few answers. The sewing co-op prospered because of contracts with a government ministry, not by competing for business with the low-wage textile factories of Asia.

When two of us spoke privately with a teacher at a Bolívarian elementary school, she said there were so few of these in the area that this one was besieged with applicants. Named for Venezuela's independence leader, Simón Bolívar, these schools have programs that are particularly advantageous for children of poor families. Unlike other schools, they have all-day classes that allows parents to hold down jobs.

No one could accuse Caracas, where our tour started, of being a Potemkin village. The warnings of our group organizers about crime were more than perfunctory; the city has by many accounts experienced a surge of crime in recent years that makes it inadvisable to walk anywhere after dark. The day before I arrived, one Global Exchange group leader was confronted by a teenage boy who threatened to pull a gun. The next day this group leader and I were walking on a crowded downtown street during the afternoon rush hour when a young man jumped me from behind and attempted, unsuccessfully, to pry my mobile phone out of my pants pocket. When I shouted for help, none of the dozens of passersby around me responded.

After the initial days of drawn-out meetings, it was a pleasure to go to the tiny, picturesque town of Curiepe to experience the three-day San Juan Festival, the biggest annual celebration of the descendents of Africans brought to the country as slaves. A remarkably colorful event with hardly any tourists to see it, the festival commemorates the three days around the summer solstice when Venezuelan slaves, forced otherwise to work seven days a week, were given a brief vacation. It's a lively -- sometimes too lively, given the amount of alcohol consumed -- mixture of Catholic prayer, pagan rituals, frenzied drum playing and wild dancing with heavily sexual connotations.

On the way back to the Caracas airport, the jarring reality of Venezuela today -- a country with enough turmoil and confusion to make any predictions about its future perilous -- once again interceded. Because the main road had huge traffic jams, my driver took side roads to save time. One of these roads was blocked with barricades manned by several young men, who wouldn't let cars pass without a contribution for "road maintenance." Just as with Cuba, there would be plenty for any tourist to talk about back at home.

Write to Stan Sesser at