The Digital Journalist
Seeing Red in Venezuela
February 2007

by Ramin Rahimian

More than any other self-generated story I have done, I approached the Venezuelan presidential election this last December more like a writer than a photographer. Countless articles and reports on the country's political situation fed my interest in Chávez's consolidation of power. I saw very few images from Venezuela before I went and I was driven more by an academic curiosity based on research than a visual curiosity. Approaching the story this way made covering the election and the events surrounding it easier. I arrived with few expectations, no pressure and no editors determining what I should produce visually. Yet, I knew what I was looking for. What I shot was like an affirmation – a kind of visual proof – that satisfied my own curiosity.

A man waits for his digital picture to be taken in order for him to be issued a national identification card needed to vote in Venezuela's Sunday election, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2006. The ID card tent was set up outside the Chacaito metro station in east Caracas and had a very long line. One Chavista said that it was good time was running out that day to get an ID because it meant "one less vote for the opposition."

Ramin Rahimian
On my first day in Caracas, while looking for a place to sit down and rest after working on the street in east Caracas for most of the day, I came upon a tent outside a metro station with a long line snaking out of it. It was about 3 p.m. on a Friday two days before Venezuela's presidential election. I asked an official-looking man what people were doing. He explained that Venezuelans were waiting to have their national identification cards issued to them so they could vote on Sunday. He seemed genuinely concerned that some people had the wrong information about when those in the tent would stop issuing ID cards, creating long lines. The tent closed at 4 p.m. and his parting words to me were, "one less vote for the opposition." He was a Chavista, a supporter of President Hugo Chávez and most likely a government worker.

Manuel Rosales, the governor of the western, oil-producing Zulia State led the opposition. In the months leading up to the election, he was able to build a cohesive opposition coalition that had been absent from Venezuelan politics for years. Chávez is, in the words of Rosales, "implementing a Castro-style system of autocratic rule in Venezuela."

Leading up to the election, the opposition seemed to gain momentum, thanks in large part to its long list of criticisms concerning Chávez's socialist revolution. The middle class and upper class of Venezuela are in the minority both economically and politically. Among them there is a real sense of alienation from and disenchantment with the country's large public sector. If you are not poor or do not support Chávez, you cannot work in the public sector or benefit from the state's oil-financed social welfare programs. A democratic leader should respect the political minority. In Venezuela, it appears that there is no room for the political minority; it exists but it is not included in the "revolution."

A large crowd of supporters cheer on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez standing on the "People's Balcony" at the Miraflores Palace, the presidential residence in downtown Caracas, as he prepared to address the crowd just minutes after it was announced he had won re-election to the presidency on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2006.

Ramin Rahimian
Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian socialist revolution (with constant reminders of the heroic Simón Bolívar) has gained support nationally through Chávez's community welfare programs called misiónes – programs that allow such things as free medical care provided by doctors Chávez brings from Cuba. His reforms keep at bay the poor living in urban slums and in the countryside. His growing anti-U.S. and anti-imperialism rhetoric has also solidified his power that he gained in 1999. His critics state that Chávez has plundered the country's vast oil revenues by offering generous aid packages to other Latin American countries and even providing cheap oil to poor U.S. cities. They also say Chávez is not spending enough of the oil money on his social welfare programs that prop up cheaply-built schools filled with free books from other countries, for example.

In addition to not doing enough socially with the country’s oil revenues, Chávez is also faulted for his non-democratic leadership. He confiscates farmlands for new government farms. He has halted congressional oversight of the military. Now, the military responds directly to him. Chávez controls almost everything that is in the public sector. He created a new constitution that includes an article allowing the president to be put up for immediate re-election as well as extending the presidential term from 5 to 6 years. Now, there is no longer a bicameral Congress. It was replaced by a unicameral National Assembly. Many believe that with his new victory, Chávez plans to limit private media and eliminate presidential term limits, thus further centralizing the government.

Despite these non-democratic measures, Venezuela is a very forward-moving and paradoxical country. Driving from the airport to Caracas, I could not believe how many billboards for U.S. and multinational companies littered the roadside. Despite all of Chávez's heated rhetoric towards the U.S. and the unbridled capitalism that the U.S. embodies, Venezuela is very tangled up in the same economic system. It seems very difficult, in my eyes, for Chávez to successfully untangle his country from the U.S. and the West and come up the winner in this wrestling match.

Venezuela is an oil-rich OPEC nation but most of its economic might is concentrated in its oil revenues leaving it, as many believe, very vulnerable in the long run and hapless when it comes from cutting its ties with the U.S. Venezuela exports roughly 65 percent of its oil to North America. The U.S. receives one-tenth of its oil imports from Venezuela. American investors are flooding into Venezuela, complicating matters even more. GM and even Halliburton have offices in Venezuela and many American multinationals are becoming very comfortable there. For now, the rhetoric has been enough to keep Chávez in power. However, realistically, his dream might not come to fruition for a long time.

Two Chavistas act out a scenario in which Venezuela slays imperialism, represented by the devil, during a post-election celebration for Hugo Chavez in the streets of downtown Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday, Dec. 4, 2006.

Ramin Rahimian
Being a citizen and a journalist from the U.S. worked in my favor and against me. In a busy deli in downtown Caracas, close to the capitol – a heavily Chavista area – I was approached by a middle-aged man wearing the party's traditional red T-shirt. He was belligerent and seemed drunk. He got in my face in this crowded deli and pulled at his shirt, telling me that I'm the devil and that this was his country. He was unrelenting. All I could do was agree with him, "Yes, I know, I'm the devil. I know." Anything so that he would not knock me out.

Photographing, or should I say street shooting, in that neighborhood was very difficult for me. It is a Chávez stronghold. I had heard countless horror stories from other shooters of theft, knife attacks, and general harassment and distaste for foreign journalists. It was tough not to shoot; I felt like I missed out on showing the downtown environment in my own way.

In the Altamira neighborhood of east Caracas, the middle-class and wealthy area of Caracas, you feel like you are in a Los Angeles suburb. At an opposition rally at Plaza Altamira the night after the results were announced, high school, college, and 20-something Rosales supporters gathered with Puma shoes, designer jeans and Abercrombie T-shirts. Many were eager to try out their English on journalists. They dressed like and stood for everything that Chávez felt was wrong with the world - everything that is in the way of his revolution. Here in this welcoming environment, seemingly a world away from downtown, I felt at ease shooting and I was able to take my time and to convey what I wanted.

The Tuesday following the election was my most rewarding day. I had the privilege of visiting the community of Nuevo Amanecer in the Coche barrio of Caracas with four other photographers who had spent a lot of time, some even months, with the community. Nuevo Amanecer is considered a government pioneer community - a community that has risen with the help of a Chávez program that allows people to take over government land that is not being used. With only their hands, this small community had cleared a city waste management junkyard. Yet the area is still filled with garbage, old large garbage trucks and other equipment. The people utilize whatever cleared land exists. They have built their own homes and set up lights that serve as guides at night. Children come home from school and play in and by garbage and rusting equipment. Clothes are dried on ropes connected from one dumpster to the next.

A resident of the Nuevo Amanecer in Coche, one of Caracas' many poor barrio neighborhoods, shows off a painted portrait of Simón Bolívar on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2006. Bolívar is revered by most Venezuelans for liberating much of South America, including Venezuela, from colonial rule.

On Dec. 3, Hugo Chavez won re-election to the presidency of Venezuela with a margin of more than 20 percent; he promised to accelerate the Bolivarian socialist revolution he has been invoking in the name of the continent's liberator, Simón Bolívar. Many of the actions Chavez has taken are seen as being antithetical to what Bolívar stood for: classical liberalism, free market economics, limited government, and separation of power.

Ramin Rahimian
On the day we were there, some residents walked a short distance down the hill to the city waste management center and demanded that they finally start clearing the abandoned junk that the people cannot move themselves. For months they were promised so. Workers agreed and spent all day clearing a large lot of its junk. Now, there was breathing room - room to gather and play safely. The men played a game that is a cross between baseball and handball (no bat, just toss the ball to yourself and swat at it). The kids watched and danced to Chavista music. I felt, as fellow photographer Brian Frank from the World Press Association did, that it was our presence, our five cameras from the "international press," that made the difference. Our presence there was enough for the government workers to want to help out.

Spending the whole day in this small neighborhood, where I knew that I was welcomed and protected, really freed me in my shooting. I did not have to look over my shoulder and I was able to take my time with the subjects and the environment. All around, it was the most ideal way for me to shoot the barrios, and that was very important to me.

Like many other populists leaders in history, Chávez is in danger of promising socialism while using non-democratic means. He has taken on a romantic role of protecting not only Venezuela but also all of Latin America. Evoking the name and legacy of Simón Bolívar, Chávez has cast himself as the new hero of his country as he pushes forward with the revolution. Bolívar is seen as "the liberator," the man who wrestled Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador from Spain. His actions and writings revealed him to be an adherent of democracy, limited government, separation of powers, freedom of religion, and rule of law. However, Chávez does not seem to be aware of the course his hero took at the end of his political life when he became a broken man as his Gran Colombia experiment began to fall apart in the mid-1820s. Bolívar adopted more centrist means to keep things stable. These methods were seen as antithetical to democratic ideals. After adopting many characteristics of power he stood against, he denounced the project as ungovernable. In 1830, before he could leave for exile, he died from complications of tuberculosis.

© Ramin Rahimian

Ramin Rahimian is a freelance photographer based in the Salt Lake City area in Utah. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004 with a degree in political science, Ramin began a staff position for a weekly suburban section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In the fall of 2006, he left his position at the paper to move west to begin freelancing and covering social and political stories in the U.S. and overseas.
Visit his Web site, Capture Images, where more images of Venezuela are posted.

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