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Fear and Loathing in Caracas

...a Bemused Journey Into the Heart of the South American Dream

I am sitting in the lobby of a tropical hotel. The night outside is perfumed, alive with crickets and latin jazz. Shortly, I am expecting a beautiful and mysterious woman who says she is a journalist to take me out into the barrios. I'm remembering the last time she kissed me, and wondering what dangers and excitements lie ahead. There are five hundred dollars of easy money in my pocket. I'm wearing a fedora and a semiautomatic pistol. I'm a man on a mission, and the night beckons.

On that April night in 1998, my life was imitating bad art. This is how it happened...

About three months previously I'd gotten an invitation to speak at a technical conference in Caracas, Venezuela; ``Visionarios 2000''. They wanted to hear my rap on open-source software development, Linux, the Internet hacker culture, etcetera. All expenses paid.

I accepted. I'd lived in Venezuela once as a small child, for four years in the early 1960s, but I have almost no memories of the place. I thought it would be interesting to go back. See the country, and reclaim a bit of my personal past.

I'd spoken at a lot of technical conferences since The Cathedral and the Bazaar started to make waves in mid-1997. My first clue that this one was going to be a bit unusual was the note at the bottom of my emailed itinerary asking me how many pieces of luggage I was bringing, so they'd know what size van to send to the airport.

While this sort of thing may be S.O.P. for the power-suited high-rollers who speak at business conventions, it's hardly the norm for U.S. technical conferences. They (or at least the ones I've been going to) tend to want you to take your own ground transport in and then jump through hoops to get reimbursement. Some suggestion of more money than usual behind these proceedings, I was thinking as my plane touched down.

It was a little after midnight local time. As I pulled my backpack off the checked-baggage carousel, I was feeling a little nervous about the cased Colt .45 ACP and magazines inside it. In the thirty-five years since I'd last seen the place, Venezuela had had coups or coup attempts more often than most of the local politicos got around to changing their underwear. On top of that, I don't even trust American police to protect my life; no way I was going to rely on third-world cops. And no way was I going to truck around unarmed in Grahame Greene country. But this meant one inquisitive customs inspector could have ruined my whole day.

I needn't have worried. Customs was a joke; they waved me through without even eyeballing my passport. Three smiling Latins with a sign reading ``Erick Raymond'' were waiting just beyond, wearing dark suits and radio headsets. They hustled me and my backpack into a van. As we rolled out of the airport, I realized two things: (a) their English was as rudimentary as my Spanish, and (b) I had no real idea what I was doing here.

Not that I wasn't ready to give my talk. Public speaking does not faze me in the least; I can extemporize at any desired length on any topic I know well enough to write about. No, the problem was that I had no idea why this particular audience wanted to hear me rave. The focus of the conference was not clear. My invitation, while clearly intended to be flattering, had been nearly incomprehensible as well. The conference Web page was no more enlightening. Zero-content rhetoric about ``challenges of the information age'' is, it seems, a genre that transcends language barriers.

My first day in, Tuesday, wasn't much help. The conference staff were clearly too busy setting up to bother with me, so I took a walk.

The view of Caracas one gets from just outside the Hilton is irresistibly allegorical. You're in the heart of the capitol, the showpiece of Venezuelan development. Around you, lush tropical plants and heavy traffic. Crowds of good-looking copper-skinned people milling around ugly thirty-year-old International-Style buildings. On the hills around us, the squatter towns loom like a wave forever about to break.

Those people. One of the fascinating things about Venezuela is their mix of racial types, signature of a population that's been cheerfully mixing germ plasm for nearly twice as long as the U.S. has existed. You see a few extremes from nearly Swedish-looking blonds to dark-skinned blacks, but the typical middle-of-the-bell-curve Venezuelan isn't quite like anything in American experience. Not even like American hispanics; there's more Indio blood, reddish skin, high cheekbones. The men are handsome, though they tend to have bad complexions. The women are gorgeous, dark-eyed beauties with glossy raven hair down to here who'd look right at home with roses in their teeth. Many of them wear miniskirts and spike heels on the street with a sexy innocence American women can no longer muster.

In that and in other ways Caracas reminds me eerily of an American city in the 1960s. I see chrome trim on the cars. Before you notice that the buildings are decaying, the skyline looks exactly like some chirpy period Life-magazine spread on the triumph of modern architecture. Even the music...punk and grunge have not touched this place. These people haven't got time for angst.

Back at the hotel, some order is beginning to emerge from the pre-conference chaos. Huge `Visionarios 2000' banners have been hung throughout the hotel. In the lobby, I am introduced to an astonishingly lovely young woman named Elssie Chavez who is, I am told, my personal translator. Her English is excellent. She is one of a platoon of navy-suited usherettes who, I will soon discover, have been hired to stand around doing little more than looking decorative. (Elssie assures me that they make excellent money doing this; several, as it turns out, are moonlighting from a local modeling agency.)

Unbeknownst to me, the introduction scene is being watched by two Americans, who accost me a few minutes later when I return to the lobby alone. They're engineers with a U.S. telecoms firm. ``So, is this an Internet conference, or what?'' one asks. I explain as much as I know, but they don't seem very interested...until the second one admits that what they really want to know is how I surrounded myself with so many beautiful women.

As I grope for some witty answer I realize two things: I really had been surrounded by beautiful women back there (not just Elssie), and this could never happen in the U.S. because our conferences don't hire moonlighting models as gofers. I decide I like the Latin way better, though a bright girl like Elssie seems underemployed at it. I'll use this story as a joke to lead my talk with Thursday morning.

I check in at the speaker's desk and am further astonished to be handed five hundred dollars American, two bills and three traveler's checks. If I turned this into the local currency the wad would choke a camel. I could live on it for three months in this city. What's going on here?

That night I begin to see some answers. The conference opens with a speech and, of all things, a performance by a children's choir. The kids are as cute as a box of kittens (I teach Elssie this expression). They're singing a kind of Latin pop I've never heard an Anglo equivalent of -- not quite folk, not quite jazz, not quite rock, very catchy, very pretty. Still, the whole thing comes across more like a PR display than anything else, and though I didn't understand the speech something about the cadence was familiar. I have somehow managed to stumble into a political event.

The concert segues into an elaborate buffet/party in the Grand Salon. White-jacketed waiters are circulating with trays of drinks among men in power suits and women in velvet gowns. I am introduced to a Minister of Education. Gradually it dawns on me that I am rubbing shoulders with the Venezuelan elite. And that Visionarios 2000, at least for them, is less about the exchange of ideas than it is about the celebration of national power.

And I am beginning to understand my appointed role. A few academics and technical people will care what I have to say, but for most of the attendees it would hardly signify if I stood on my head and spoke in Urdu. I'm here for my value as an exotic; my blue-eyed American presence has been solicited to lend tone to the affair. Earnest Latins shake my hand and peer into my face as though to discover what ineffable spark makes a First-Worlder run.

Safely hidden by the mask they have hung on me, I go into full alien-anthropologist mode. My childhood Spanish is beginning to come back a bit. I circulate. I learn a lot from the questions they ask me and the job titles they politely ask me if I match. One of the things I learn is there seems to be no native hacker culture at all here!

That means more than you'd think. I've talked with hackers in Warsaw. Even there, just recovering from forty years of life in the Soviet bloc, there's some concept that you can choose your place in the system, or choose (with some effort) to stand partway outside it. In the U.S. we have lots of hackers like me because it's relatively easy to cut partway loose from the scarcity-economics game and define your own individual niche based on what you want to do. In Poland this is harder to accomplish, because everyone is poorer and has to spend more time chasing food and rent, but at least they understand the concept. So there is a Polish hacker culture, though not a large one.

Venezuela is a much wealthier country than Poland, but the men and women in that ballroom displayed no Polish understanding at all. As I tried to explain what I did and why, I learned that the only labels in their model of the world that fit me were `consultor' and `independiente'. It became clear that these have even stronger connotations of `hired gun' than they do in English. And, revealingly, the noun `independiente' doesn't take any modifiers or specifiers -- as though, have said one is outside the corporate or government ambit, there are no other distinctions worth making.

Of course I'd read all the angry descriptions of South American politics, the immorality tales of smug and corrupt oligarchies lording it over masses of peasants and campesinos. What I met in the Grand Salon was subtler and sadder than that -- people who know they're big frogs in a small pond, looking for a way to a bigger one but blinkered by their own inability to imagine an unstratified society of independent peers.

My education in Venezuelan psychopolitics was interrupted by meeting a few English-speakers; notably, Muriel Oaks and Skip Green of GTE's distance-learning group. I believe it was Muriel, a petite but formidable woman of indeterminate age who I took to immediately, who cleared up one minor mystery -- the source of certain strange noises that assaulted the Hilton ground floor in the evening.

These noises were random, loud chirping sounds. What puzzled me is their oddly pure, electronic-sounding timbre, as though a whole pile of personal beepers and digital watches were going into continuous epileptic short-out mode. Birds? Frogs? Insects? Turns out it was crickets. Loud crickets. Even Texas ain't got crickets like these.

Wednesday morning. The conference's TCP/IP network is up. The day's talks seem mostly to do with politics and regulation, and there are open machines in the press room. I descend on one hungrily and spend much of the day catching up on nearly three days' accumulation of back mail. I have nearly forgotten the gun I am carrying; the way I have it concealed is very hard to spot unless you know exactly where and what to look for, and I'm used to the weight.

Wednesday lunch is catered in the Grand Salon. I get to chat with the man who wrote the exceptionally tortured English in my invitation letter, a Swiss-German emigre named Andreas Meier who teaches at Simon Bolivar University. His spoken English is much better. In person he looks classically Teutonic but has the easy manner and voluble body language of a Venezuelan; ``I am not a typical Swiss,'' he accurately notes. He hints that I will soon meet a native Venezuelan hacker, managing to imply that the man is just as sui generis as Andreas himself.

I spend most of that lunch talking with Andreas's boss, a semiretired mathematical logician and university administrator, Hector somebody whose last name I never catch. His interests in formal systems theory parallel some remembered preoccupations of mine from my student days. We have a lively and interesting discussion. Then he begins to tell me about his attempts to apply mathematical analysis to the sociology of Venezuela. His projection of the future is rather bleak. He thinks Venezuela's climate and resources have been too kind to humans, never giving them any incentive to build the self-discipline or stock of skills needed to generate wealth once the extractive industries have played out.

I already know that Venezuela's economy floats on cheap oil. I know that the easily taxable wealth from extractive industries in the Third World has actually retarded broad-based modernization by encouraging corrupt, lazy and brutal political regimes. What I've never seen before is how this process looks from the point of view of a member of the local power elite who's too honest to blink. This is fascinating!

The U.S.'s culture is so imbued with Weberian virtue that we take our own ability to make money in any kind of physical environment for granted -- so we don't think much about natural-resource stocks or climate as a determinant of national character. The professor, steeped in Venezuelan history, sees great significance in the fact that Venezuela has always made its wealth from extractive industries (hardwoods, copper, oil) rather than agriculture or industry. And the requisites for survival in Venezuela's temperate tropical climate with abundant wild foods have been light -- proverbially, a hammock and a poncho.

To the professor, the post-WWII oil boom (and inevitable bust) is just the latest cycle in an old story. The land is too good to its people, so the people are lazy. They never grow the social maturity, thrift, or civic virtue to handle crisis and deprivation. As a result, Venezuela remains a fool's paradise run by kleptocrats, its long lazy tropical dreams occasionally interrupted by racking fever as it hunts up the next extractive fix.

If the professor's dissection of his own country is pitiless, his prognosis for the U.S. is hardly kinder. He admires the American achievement, but believes we have become so used to wealth that we are forgotting the virtues that made us wealthy. When we exhaust the natural wealth of the U.S. (he projects) we will crash. There are obvious holes in his economics, but when I consider the squalid mess our politics and media have become the charge suddenly seems hard to refute.

I take time out that afternoon to teach Elssie some American slang and dialectology. She soaks it up like a sponge and tells me in return stories about learning English in Montreal. My estimate of her IQ was never low and it's rising. The fact that she can't find a better way to make money than playing usherette is beginning to seriously bother me; is this the individual human cost of the professor's trends? I feel glad that I can at least make her laugh a lot by imitating American and British regional accents.

Wednesday night I treat Muriel Oaks to dinner at the hotel restaurant, courtesy of the conference organizers who don't seem like they'll mind a few extra bucks on the room tab. She too has noticed that the conference is something of a dog-and-pony show. We shrug. There are worse fates than to be here.

Thursday morning I give my talk. It goes well by my usual metric -- that is, the audience laughs when it's supposed to and doesn't when it isn't. Afterwards, I go to some other talks. I listen (through simultaneous translation) to a professor from Peru who has been statistically analyzing the content of the Web, estimating things like the document size distribution and the dispersion of the link structure. I hear Larry Press's talk about estimates of international penetration of the net. And I hear Skip Green give a fascinating presentation on patterns of success and failure in distance learning.

Thursday lunch is again catered in the Grand Salon. It's delayed for some time because a politician is making a speech to reporters where we're supposed to be eating. We wait for some more time, and nobody is surprised. I have already observed that the `manana' attitude is not just a travel-book cliche; the conference schedule has been continuously running a half hour or more late.

I find my way to the one table full of English-speakers. Andreas is there; so is Larry Press. A big jovial Irishman named Pat O'Callaghan, who moderated audience questions at my talk, is sitting to my right. He too teaches at the University. We swap stories about his home country and hit it off famously (he is visibly pleased when I tell him I am part Irish). To my left, a face I don't know turns out to belong to Andreas's mysterious hacker. Aha! His name is Leonardo Mauro and he tells me of having spent much time in the U.S., until (as he put it) ``I woke up in a hotel and realized I didn't know what city I was in. Then I realized it is time to go home.''

We talk of many things. Though I don't mention the professor's bleak analysis, Leonardo seconds it from a different angle. When I wonder why Elssie can't get a better job, he says ``Things are getting very bad here. We used to have a middle class, but it's been destroyed.'' ``By taxes?'' I ask, thinking of the U.S. ``No,'' he replies, ``Corruption.''

The picture Leo paints is even bleaker than the professor's. According to him, the Venezuelan upper class has become as closed in on itself as the old Soviet nomenklatura. The most important currency is not money but influence. If you are part of the charmed circle, you can get anything. Outside it, there is nothing. Bright young people like Elssie quickly conclude that their best strategy is to get as well-educated as possible and leave the country -- which of course makes the underlying problem worse.

I remember shaking hands with the elite the previous night and wonder if the Soviet bloc's nomenklatura looked as sad and trapped in its day before the Berlin Wall came down. I want somehow to get out of the hotel, make contact with the real city. Everybody I've talked to so far has been within Leo's charmed circle, hating the system perhaps but part of it. But how? The conference organizers have been munificent in many ways but apparently it never occurred to them that I might want to see Caracas itself. My Spanish is rudimentary, I'm an alien here. The mask they have put on me is beginning to chafe.

I speculate on trying to find my way out to a jazz club or street musicians. Leo is no help; a classic introverted hacker type, he'd be a fish out of water in that kind of street scene. Ah well, we speak of many other things, trading war stories of Unix versions fifteen years gone. We hang out together after lunch and I ask him about the local firearms laws. They are draconian, it seems. Uh oh. I evade his obvious next question and slip away to catch up on my email again and consider what I've learned.

That night it's ``Andy Duran's Big Band'' in the Grand Salon, putting a syncopated Latin spin on ``Little Brown Jug'' and ``Take the A Train''. I like them better when they start in on ``Oye Como Va'' and salsa music. The party begins to really hop. A tall blonde woman on the conference staff, grown a bit tipsy, takes my arm and confides ``You are very pretty'', not a sentiment I'm much used to hearing back home. Andreas, apparently single, has joked in my presence that Venezuelan women keep him here. Perhaps they have a cultural thing for blue-eyed men?

I watch, chatting with Elssie, as the South Americans do all those things you think are just movie cliches -- limbo dancing, conga lines. Gradually I drift over to the bandstand and just absorb the music, swaying happily as the conga drums pound. The band's manager spots an opportunity and presses a card into my hand, urging me to take the band to America.

They're seriously good. My fingers begin itching for my flute. A woman asks me to dance. She's attractive, petite, curly-haired, one of the copper-skinned mestizas in the middle of Venezuela's phenotypic bell curve. I'm not very good at the local dance steps but she doesn't seem to mind and smiles at me a lot. Afterwards I watch Elssie and the usherettes dancing wild tangos with one of the headphone-wearers from my van trip. He takes them all on, one by one. He's really good. Elssie tells me he's the boss.

After a while I can't stand it any more and go upstairs for my flute. I play a just a bit for Elssie and fade back into a corner to warm up and get used to the band's groove, but it is not to be. The band's manager twigs to what I'm doing, laughs, and clues in her friends. A small mob of excited Latins, including the tipsy blonde woman, literally pushes me onto the bandstand. The band is cool with this; Andy Duran waves me to the front mike and we rip into about three minutes of torrid salsa jamming. By the time we're done I'm soaked with sweat and the crowd is cheering and stamping. I stumble off stage; a wide-eyed local shakes my hand and demands "Where the hhhhell did that come from?" I'm delighted; I have blown off the mask.

I'm still wired as the party breaks up. Wandering through the lobby towards my room, I see the woman who asked me to dance chatting with another conference attendee. She invites me to join them. He is Luis, a physician from Peru; she is Diana, a graphics designer with a local newspaper. We relocate to the hotel restaurant and talk of many things well into the night, amused at each others' attempts to cross the language barriers, comparing our home countries, evaluating the conference. It is the kind of conversation that makes friendships.

Diana is vivacious. She and Luis tease me into speaking more Spanish, and she compliments me on my pronunciation, which she says is much better than her English. She thinks it is a terrible shame that Luis and I have barely been out of the hotel, and promises to take us to a live-music club tomorrow, Friday night, where I can maybe get into another jam session.

We have to leave when they close down the restaurant. Diana hugs and kisses me goodbye, a gesture I have observed is relatively common between friends of the opposite sex here. But I also notice that she only hugs Luis.

Friday morning, last day of the conference. I'm on a panel with Leo Mauro, Larry Press, Andreas, and two corporate droids from Oracle Venezuela. The topic is ``The future of open software''. Leo, bless his pure hacker heart, talks too long and too technically. The droids are clearly struggling. Larry asks intelligent questions that we never have time to explore. I try to keep it short and end up sounding downright laconic amidst the flows of baroque Spanish from four of the six participants. The panel is not, I fear, a huge success.

The convention is breaking down; it officially ends at noon with a reprise by the children's choir. Elssie finds me and hugs me goodbye. I wish her well.

Afterwards Diana finds me in the press room as I am catching up yet again on my email. She kisses me warmly, promises to return that night for our expedition into the city, and vanishes. I start working on my next research paper, ``The Magic Cauldron''. Today's scheduled talks don't seem very interesting, but there's plenty of work I can do over a telnet. And I do, until they shut down the conference's network at about three in the afternoon. I'm the last person off.

I wander over to the exhibit area, where I find Muriel Oaks running a distance-learning demonstration. It's the first time I've seen full videoconferencing, and I find the compression delay kind of eerie. Muriel offers to take me to dinner, but I explain about Diana's expedition and that I'm not sure when she'll show.

And then I get a surprise; Elssie is back, and she's brought me a present -- a touristy Caracas T-shirt, and a couple of pins and a bumper sticker. Her brother wants my email address. She says I've been nice to work with, and we hug with less restraint this time. I watch her walk away, hoping she'll get somehow to make a life in her own country.

I buy a couple of magazines (spending money for the first time since I landed in Caracas) and go back to my room to wait for Diana. I finish the magazines, wander down to the lobby, and it is at that point that I realize my life is imitating bad art. And not just bad art but low comedy; the day before I leave, the local food and water has caught up to me and I've got the beginnings of a fine case of traveller's dysentery.

As they're taking me to the airport early next morning, I get a good look at Caracas in the rising sun. Passing through the squatter towns on the outskirts of the city, I see that the shanties are different from those in my dim thirty-five-year-old memories. The corrugated tin and cardboard has given way to crumbling red brick. Perhaps (I think) some progress does get made.

Even as I'm pondering this, the van driver is telling us that in Venezuela a liter of petroleum is cheaper than a liter of mineral water. The oil boom goes on, and so does the regressive politics it feeds. There was a bloody coup attempt in 1994, and the prospect of what may happen after the upcoming elections worries a lot of people. Seen from outside, the odds are there will be some drama but no real change.

But, you'll be wondering, what of Diana? What of her invitation to go out, go native, cruise the barrios laughing and join the stridulating crickets in their warm jungle night? That hint of seduction, the exogamic sparkle in her eyes...did she? Did we? Would I have? Was it all my imagination?

She never showed. And I never learned her last name. Venezuela's charming everywoman, and her city, kept their secrets. And I flew away home.

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