Venezuela (2005-07-20 to 2005-07-31)
I spent the final 11 days of July on a visit to Venezuela which I have been unable to write about until now, because the succession of failures was too painful. I needed to wait for the pain to fade.
A few weeks before the trip, my former sweetheart Tania wrote to me saying that she really, really wanted to see me. I suggested she could come to Venezuela, and I got tickets for her. So much, so good.
The failures began before I actually arrived: there was a delay on the way to Miami, and I was stuck there overnight. Fortunately that delay caused no particular problem. On arriving in Maracaibo, I found out that Juan Carlos Gentile, a friend and free software activist who is helping the state oil company switch to free software, was stuck in Italy, waiting for a visa to reenter Venezuela. When I had last seen him, a few months before in Italy, he had absent-mindedly left with my Bulgarian CD in his computer. On discovering it there, he said he'd return it in Venezuela, but this proved impossible.
Tania was not there, either. She had had a visa problem too--the people arranging an event in Venezuela which invited her to speak had not provided the necessary letter of invitation.
Aside from this, there were no particular problems in Maracaibo except the heat, which I found intolerable. I stayed where it was air-conditioned. I spoke with Tania by email and by phone with the people in Caracas, trying to solve the problem. At the Venezuelan embassy in Bogota they told her that the invitation letter had to come through the Colombian embassy in Caracas; but when people in Caracas tried to drop off the letter, that embassy told them this was the wrong procedure and that they had to send the letter directly to Tania. They said they would try both fax and overnight mail.
On Friday I went to Caracas. That evening I read mail which Tania had sent that morning, saying that she had still been unable to get her visa and begging me to ask someone to go back to the Colombian embassy. Of course, in the evening that was impossible. All I could do was ask for more information--for instance, if the faxed copy had reached her. She later responded that it had, and she had brought it to the Venezuelan embassy, but they had rejected it, insisting that it had to arrive from the Colombian embassy in Caracas in order to be valid.
It was theoretically possible that she could apply for the visa on Monday, get it on Tuesday, and come to Venezuela on Wednesday. But that way we would only have 3 days together. We gave up. I can't get money back for those tickets, but maybe she can use them another time.
The meetings of the Telesur advisory board began on Saturday. They included being on stage on Sunday for the official launch of the station, which now has four hours of programming daily. The official launch appeared too self-interested and tendentious, and I thought it might not be very interesting for viewers. It had been scheduled for Bolivar's birthday for symbolic reasons, even though the station's offices and staffing were still incomplete. A couple of people I know wrote to me saying they had watched it.
Most of the people in the advisory board are intellectuals who want attention to be paid to additional social issues or criteria that they consider important. I agree that these causes are important, but the aggregate is far more than Telesur can do. I tried to orient my suggestions toward attracting a large enough audience to be effective as a counterweight to the propaganda of Faux News and CNN.
Fortunately I was not alone: Tariq Ali, a journalist with far more knowledge of the issue, was there too, and presented his advice very clearly. One point he made was that the station, to be credible, had to be independent of the government--and that having the minister of information as its president was the exact opposite of what they ought to do. It looks like people took his advice to heart, because a few days later I heard that Minister Izarra had stepped down as minister and remained as president of Telesur only. That struck me as an unusual thing to do, so I asked my friends to explain. They told me he had been a TV journalist, not particularly a Chavez supporter, but during the coup he quit his TV job rather than tell lies as his bosses wanted. After the coup was defeated, Chavez appointed him a minister. That shows a refreshing attitude of integrity on all sides.
On Sunday during the meetings, I discussed with Izarra and others what we had read in a newspaper. It said that Chavez was talking of jamming the radio transmissions that Congressman Connie Mack had proposed to send to Venezuela to "give Venezuela precise, objective and complete news". (I have only seen those words in Spanish translation, and I have translated them back to English here.)
When I read about Commie Mack's amendment, passed by the House of Representatives, I laughed. The Venezuelan opposition press, which includes nearly all the TV stations, says everything that would warm his heart; having it come directly from Washington would only reveal its true origin. To jam these signals would be foolish--as well as wrong. The way to respond to bad speech is not with censorship, but through correcting the errors with other speech. I suggested that Venezuela should send radio transmissions in English to the US to give Americans objective and complete news.
We all thought this was an important thing for me to say to President Chavez at lunch the next day. The difficulty was that I was supposed to go to Merida on an early morning flight, to speak there at 11:30. The Telesur people agreed to cover half of the costs as compensation for my missing that speech, and we changed the flight. The lunch was supposed to start at noon, giving me plenty of time to attend and then make it to my flight at 3:40.
The next morning, we were told that the lunch was delayed till 1pm. No problem, I could stay until 2pm.
We arrived at 1pm at the Miraflores Palace, sat down in the room where the lunch would be, but the president was not there. I pulled out my computer and began to work. We waited and waited. He arrived at 1:50, and began moving around the table, exchanging some words with each person.
When he got to me, I said it would be a mistake to jam the transmissions. He agreed--he had already recognized the same thing. I'm glad he didn't need me to tell him that the jamming was a mistake, but at the same time, I wondered if I had been a fool to suppose for a moment that it was necessary. And I felt it was a waste to have missed a speech to achieve so little.
I quickly suggested that Telesur broadcast radio in English to the US, and he moved on.
I arrived in Merida without further problems, but 20 minutes into my speech that evening, the electricity failed for the whole university. While waiting for power to come back, I switched to distributing the FSF materials. When that was done, power was still off, so I finished the speech in the dark, using candles so people could see my hands and face. We decided to postpone the questions and answers to the next evening.
The following day, my hosts and I ascended the nearby mountain, using a series of four cable car lifts (with three intermediate stations) that take you to the icy altitude of 4800 meters. The views were spectacular, but it appeared my camera had malfunctioned on the way down--three spots of light appeared in the same place in every photo. I eventually discovered they were in my computer screen, not in the photos, which were actually fine.
I learned that I was not the only speaker missing at the previous day's event. Another activist from Colombia had been unable to come, due to visa problems. I suggested that Telesur investigate the series of visa problems, which might perhaps be part of some larger systemic problem.
The next failure occurred when I arrived in Caracas: the person who had said he would meet me at the airport wasn't there. (He later said he had not been told when I would arrive.) I tried contacting various other people I knew, and could only reach one person. He came there to meet me, while I waited an hour. Fortunately I was able to work during the time, so it didn't cause a practical problem, only some worries. But then came a real big problem: the meeting we were supposed to have that evening with a legislator about the proposed free software law was canceled, because he had to leave town in a hurry to campaign for his party. (Elections were due shortly after the end of my visit.) There was no possible time to reschedule it.
I gave two speeches in Caracas. One was mainly for government people, organized by Sergeant-Major Torres, who converted the Venezuelan Army's servers to GNU/Linux. People from the Ministry of Science and Technology attended, and I hope this will encourage them to support free software more in the future.
There was a bookstore downstairs in the same building; I went there and found an interesting book to buy, and at that point I learned something shocking and disappointing about Venezuelan law. Every purchase--even food--requires the purchaser to present his national ID card, and his ID number is recorded to report it to the government. The bookseller was very angry about it, and I share his feelings. It is like my worst nightmares about surveillance, come true. Supposedly the purpose is for tax collection, but no one was able to give me a clear story of how it would solve a problem or why it was necessary. Other countries have been able to collect taxes in other ways.
In my second Caracas speech, I raised this issue, and urged people to organize to change it. If I someday have another chance to speak with President Chavez, this is what I will discuss.
At that point, all that remained was for me to return home. My friend had an unrealistic idea of how long it would take to get to get a cab, to get to the airport, and to check in, and as a result I missed the flight. This almost meant missing the visiting relatives who were making a rare visit to Boston the next day. But I managed to get a morning flight the next day, and arrived in Boston around 5pm. At this point I was able to contact them by phone, and brought them to a nice Chinese restaurant.