Category Archives: My Travels

Contrasts in Venezuela

I recently spent a few days in Venezuela. As a North American, I found this country to be full of interesting contrasts. In my view, this was particularly true of the nation’s capital, Caracas.

After leaving the airport in Caracas in order to drive into the city, you have to drive on a coastal road that gives you a spectacular view of the ocean. I cannot describe how beautiful it was (and, unfortunately, due to a failure in my SD card, I lost all my photos of the trip, so I cannot show you, either).

After a few minutes, the coastal road turns inland between a series of rolling hills with trees and plants of the most beautiful shades of a luscious, deep green. At certain times of day, the sunlight begins a dance around the peaks of the hills, casting shadows across the trees in a way that really captivates the eye.

Unfortunately, the scenery quickly changes, as large, sprawling neighbourhoods of favelas come into view (I think the word for this in English is a “shanty town”). I was surprised by the size and the spread of these neighbourhoods, which seem to rival (or perhaps surpass) comparable areas of Rio de Janeiro. I uploaded a photo of these favelas in my previous posting about the Venezuelan election. These neighbourhoods spread across the hills; at the foot of these hills lies large amounts of trash in the form of plastic bags, papers, food remnants, etc. Life in these neighbourhoods cannot be easy; in fact, I recently saw a report on CNN International that describes public major housing projects led by Chavez to help people move out of favelas and into nicer apartments with access to schools, clinics, and other services at no charge.

Once inside Caracas, the scenery changes again to show a relatively modern city, a typical downtown that could be in any country of the world. There are many vehicles of all types on the road, and buildings with interesting architecture.

As we go further into town, you begin to see campaign signs appear to support President Chavez and his challenger, Henrique Capriles, contrasting the status quo vs. change and a new way of life.

I stayed in one of the nicer hotels in Caracas; however, in my opinion, this hotel was disappointing compared to similar hotels in other capital cities around the world that I have visited.

At first glance, the rooms seemed quite nice, clean, and spacious, and the windows provided a beautiful view of the hills that surround the city; however, upon closer inspection, I found that the furniture in the room was actually becoming run-down, with stains and spots and other elements that made me feel as though my room was less than clean.

The toilet failed to function at times, and I had to open the tank and fiddle with it to get it to work again; this happened three times on the trip.

The hotel staff, though friendly enough, was inattentive, making everything from meals to the service request I placed about my toilet take much longer than it should have.

Again, this hotel is considered to be one of the best accommodations in Caracas. To me, it represented the contrasts within the city.

Caracas is stunningly beautiful, and nearly every Venezuelan I have ever met has been friendly. Indeed, the Venezuelan students in my university’s ESL program have typically been an absolute pleasure, attentive to details, careful to follow procedures, and conscientious about their schoolwork. They are the reason why we have decided to spend more time and resources to recruit students in Venezuela.

With these things in mind, I keep coming back to the idea that Caracas should be teeming with tourists, foreign businesses and investments, and development projects to improve housing, infrastructure, employment, and the overall economy of the area. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be what is actually happening there. Instead, I heard stories about how many Venezuelans are trying to leave the country, seeking better opportunities elsewhere and trying to avoid the problems, the poverty, and the crime that affects the country. Another contrast, when you comoare these people with those who have benefited from Chavez’s social policies and projects.

Overall, Venezuela and its many contrasts were an inspiration to me. Now that we are a week after the election, I find myself wondering about what will happen there. What is going to happen to this country in the next 10-20 years?

Witnessing history in Venezuela?

It has been an interesting time to be in Venezuela over the past few days. Hearing about Venezuela from afar allows us to keep a distance from what is going on here; however, actually being here leaves a lasting impression and a keen interest in the country’s politics.

Today marks the final day of campaigning in their upcoming presidential election. On October 7, voters will make their decision between the incumbent president, Hugo Chavez, and his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski.

President Chavez has been in power for the past 14 years. His socialist policies have made him quite popular among large segments of his people, including the poor, as is evidenced by the large number of his posters and pro-Chavez messages that are proudly displayed in and around favela neighbourhoods that I passed by today.

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This is a picture I snapped while driving by a favela neighbourhood. If you look closely, you can see Chavez posters and a Chavez banner proudly displayed on their homes.

His slogan: “Chavez–el corazón de mi patria.” It roughly translates to “The heart of my homeland,” though the true meaning of patria cannot be properly conveyed in English, as it refers not only to country, but also culture, society, and national identity. Clearly, this is a man whose supporters believe is Venezuela.

Chavez’s campaign slogan draws on the hearts of his Venezuelan supporters.

Example of a Chavez campaign poster.

Capriles, by contrast (according to his supporters to whom I have spoken–I do not personally know his platform), has views that are more capitalist and market oriented. His election would signal a major shift in Venezuelan politics, economics, and international relations. His slogan, “Hay un camino” (“There is a way”) inspires his followers, who have told me things like, “Fourteen years has been too long, how can we stand another five?” Others said that they fear the direction in which Venezuela is going,  likening it to Communism. They also expressed frustration about the talented youth and people of means who have been leaving the country in droves because they feel that there is neither incentive nor opportunity to remain there.

Campaign poster supporting the challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Today marks the final day of the campaign season, and there are many thousands of people who have taken to the streets to march for their candidate of choice. From my hotel room over the past two days, we have heard incessant car horns honking and music being played from huge speakers tied to the backs of trucks as people campaigned and drew attention to their candidate.

There is a huge demonstration on Avenida Bolívar in downtown Caracas with thousands of people who habe gathered to show their support for, and eventually hear from, Capriles. As I write this post, I am sitting in a Japanese restaurant watching a live TV feed of the demonstration, and everyone’s eyes are glued to the screen. Dressed in slacks, a t-shirt in the red, yellow, and blue pattern of the Venezuelan flag, and a similar baseball cap, Capriles is standing on a cooler in the bed of a truck waving to his supporters as he makes his way to a stage to address them.

I cannot help but wonder what is happening in demonstrations for Chavez, but I am very uninformed. The reality is that I have not yet met a single person who has told me that he/she supports the incumbent president. Instead, I have spoken to excited people who have been saying things like, “We are going to see history today,” and “This is an important time in Venezuelan history.” There is an energy, even a tension, in the air as we approach the election.

Sadly, if I was in the USA today, I do not think that I would be seeing too much of what is going on here in Venezuela; indeed, I think that even if it was on TV, I do not know that I would be interested in watching it. Being here and being exposed to the almost palpable energy of this city certainly has made an impact. I find that I am incredibly interested in the results of this election, and I think about the substantial impact that this election will have on the Americas regardless of who wins.

I look up from writing this article to watch the coverage some more, but suddenly the screen goes dark…some type of “interference” with the signal…

The fall international recruitment cycle is upon us!

I have a relatively heavy fall recruitment schedule, covering five countries at several events over the next two months. All of these events are run (either exclusively or in partnership) by BMI, whom I consider to be one of the best fair organizers in the international education industry.

The events I am attending are as follows:

  • Salão do Estudante: Student fairs take place in several cities in Brazil in September. My schedule includes Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, Curitiba, Recife, Salvador, and Rio de Janeiro.
  • Expo-Estudiante: Student fairs that take place in several  countries in South America in September/October, including Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia.
  • The Global Agent Workshop: Taking place in Istanbul in October, this two-day workshop is comprised of multiple meetings with international education agencies, a “speed dating” method that helps agents and institutions to begin preliminary discussions to potentially form partnerships.
  • The Higher Education Workshop: A two-day venue in October that helps US and Brazilian institutions to meet in an effort to form partnerships, educate each other about programs at each university, and for US schools to raise awareness about their programs that qualify for Science Without Borders, the relatively new Brazilian federal government scholarship program;
  • The Higher Education Fair (Salão do Universitario): an education fair that is specific for undergraduate and graduate degree programs to be marketed to Brazilian students in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

All of this makes for a busy fall! This does not even count the travel that my team is doing this fall, going to venues in Argentina, Chile, Germany, Ireland, and Iraq.

We definitely have our work cut out for us during this travel season, but we are so very blessed to be able to do the work that we do!