It's been more than 20 years since Hugo Chávez led his first coup attempts in Venezuela. But for travelers, the potential hassles and dangers of travel to Venezuela are similar, or likely worse (no wonder this South American nation doesn't show up much on my Latin America travel blog, LatinFlyer.com). My partner and I had the misfortune of vacationing in Caracas back in 1992, during one of Chávez's coup attempts. In part 1 of my Venezuela travel essay, I related the unbelievable experience of waking up in a city that had been invaded and where constitutional rights had been suspended. In this second installment, I recount what happened when we finally made it to the U.S. embassy, and what we were able to do when curfews finally were extended.
Caracas, Venezuela, November 1992: On Saturday morning, the local Caracas TV stations captured our attention with footage of a daring escape by a rebel pilot, who ejected from his plane seconds before a fiery crash at La Carlota military airport. The curfew was delayed until 10pm that night. But we still didn't know what we were supposed to do. We couldn't get anyone other than our friend Javier on the telephone -- no calls to the States, and no answer at the U.S. embassy, the consulate or American Airlines, even though the Caracas airport had reopened. The front desk at our $20-a-night hotel was no help either. The only thing left to do was to go to the embassy in person, perhaps register ourselves so they would know that we were in Caracas, and ask for their advice about what to do.
We were filled with relief and thoughts of big chandeliers when the cab dropped us off at the gate in front of the embassy and consulate of the United States of America. A guard put Angel on the intercom with someone inside the consulate.
"Why did you come to Venezuela in the first place?" the voice inside the consulate asked. "You shouldn't have come here."
"We checked with the State Department before our trip, and they didn't tell us not to come. Besides, it's too late now. We're here."
"Well, we can't do anything for you. You'll have to come back when our offices are open, Monday at 9am."
"But we're supposed to leave on Monday, and we can't even find out if there are flights to the United States."
The line went dead.
The English-speaking guard had left, and the other guards said we'd have to wait. I was almost in tears. We were like two Dorothies who, after arriving at the gates of Oz, find out that not only could the Wizard not help us, but that he didn't even want to try -- at least not until regular business hours. ("I do not feel like Dorothy," Angel said huffily when I suggested this analogy.)
We stood there for 15 minutes, feeling unloved by our country. Finally, a young woman walking toward the gate eyed us as she flashed her identification card at the entrance. "Son Norteamericanos?" she asked the guard, inquiring if we were North Americans.
"Yes!" I called desperately, rushing toward her. "Couldn't you please help us? All we want is advice and some help with a long-distance phone call so our families know we're alright."
"I'd like to help, but I'm afraid we can't pay for your call."
"That's fine! We can reverse the charges!"
"Well, as long as you have your passports, I guess you can come in with me and I'll see what we can do."
She didn't usually come in on Saturdays, she explained as we walked inside, but the extreme circumstances gave consular employees a heavy workload. "We're still officially closed to the public, but I could tell when I walked up that you guys needed help," she said, looking at us like we had watched the starving dogs on the street.
"You're uncle thinks you're dead," my mother said as soon as I called her.
The woman in the consulate said we were safe if we stayed away from the capital building area. "And don't go out after the curfew," she urged. She took our names and hotel address, so that the consulate could (supposedly) contact us in case of any changes in the situation.
I breathed a sigh of relief as we left the consulate. I even took advantage of the suspended constitutional rights to do various annoying things to Angel: I put my index finger in his ear and slapped his forehead.
"Stop it," he said.
"You can't do anything about it!" I shouted gleefully. "You have no constitutional rights!" Martial law can be fun.
We met up with our friend Javier later and spent the evening in a tiny old bar in Sabana Grande, drinking Polar beers served by a man who resembled the alcoholic pharmacist in It's a Wonderful Life. It was too late for Javier to get home before curfew, so we bought more beer and headed back to the Hotel Ritz to the only thing we could do: drink in our room. We weren't allowed to have non-paying visitors (cheap hotels are sometimes strict about this sort of thing), so Javier had to rent an extra room for about $14 so he could stay at the hotel. We fell asleep watching a music awards show.
We had already given up on our original vacation plans to fly to Isla Margarita, Venezuela's Caribbean island vacation hotspot. So we created a must-see list for Caracas instead, and Javier served as a faithful guide in our futile attempt to see the attractions on our little piece of paper.
We wanted to go up Mount Avila, the 7,000-foot peak that rises dramatically against the city, but Javier said it would be hard to get to the mountains (the rebels had been up there not long ago). So we decided to stay in the center of the city. It would be cheap to get around, especially since the Metro was free in the days after the uprising. Sightseeing was cheap, but not easy; a city bus we boarded was forced to take a detour when it encountered a row of soldiers with machine guns.
We soon discovered that political uprisings usually result in closed tourist sights. We stared at the closed front doors of the zoological park, the Museum of Colonial Art, the Children's Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Government and city sights may have been shuttered, but many stores were reopening. "People forget very quickly," Javier said; even when stripped of their constitutional rights, they still shopped. The greatest cultural experience of my day was using the employee restroom at a crowded supermarket while workers chopped vegetables nearby.
As we headed back to the hotel, munitions experts were detonating bombs that hadn't exploded when they hit the airstrip on Friday. So far, about 1,200 rebel soldiers had been arrested -- and an additional 93 had flown to Peru, apparently the only nearby country that would give them political asylum. I thought these violent threats to democracy might make more people want to participate in the upcoming elections. Not so. "I don't know if I'm going to vote," Javier said, voicing an apathy born of frustration that affected much of the population. "I don't know if it's worth it, because I'm not sure if the candidates are any good. We're just so disappointed with the system."
Earlier in the month, the Venezuelan Senate had voted to recommend holding a referendum on cutting short the 70-year-old president's term. Pérez refused to consider the proposal. In a televised speech, he was now saying that "cutting the presidential term or the president's resigning would only precipitate chaos and tragedy in Venezuela." He fully intended to serve until the end of his term in February 1994.
Given the limited entertainment options on our last night, we decided to see a movie and have a relaxed dinner before the 10pm curfew. But when we got out of the theater at about8pm, nearly all the restaurants were either closed or refused to serve any new customers. After a frantic search, we found a sidewalk café willing to sell us cold Cuban sandwiches. We chewed quickly as soldiers carrying machetes marched by.
People were justifiably nervous about getting home before curfew, according to Javier. More civilians were dying in this uprising than soldiers or rebels. One night after the last coup attempt, Javier missed his bus just before curfew and had to walk some distance to catch another one. "When I finally got to my block, it was almost six o'clock and I was running up the street," he recalled. "I got to the corner where my building was, and the police stopped me. I started yelling and crying. My aunt was looking out from the balcony and saw me with the police. She ran downstairs to tell the police that I was her nephew. And then they finally let me go." We walked Javier to the bus stop and he went home.
On Monday morning, I was awakened by a faint rattling sound from the hall. It sounded like someone was, ever so quietly, pushing a key into the lock on our door. I jumped out of bed and crouched in front of the door to look for shadows in the hall. Nothing. I went back to bed. My imagination reeled. We were supposed to leave today. But now someone was trying to kidnap us and torture us and hold us hostage and force us to watch more "Who's the Boss?" in Spanish. Life is scary.
I heard rattling again, only louder. Jumping out of bed, I grabbed a plastic bottle of mineral water as a weapon. Angel woke up and looked at me as if I were an idiot. I cracked open the door and peered outside. In the hallway, the cleaning woman -- who had woken us up every morning with her noises before the coup attempt -- called to her colleague down the hall, laughing loudly as she put away her big, noisy key and opened the broom closet next door.
As we loaded the taxi, Javier stopped by with a going-away gift of placemats and socks from his mother's store. "I'm sure we'll have a better time the next time you visit," he promised.
On the taxi ride to the airport, we passed a crowd of people standing along the highway, next to a large white building. "That's the prison of Catia," the driver said. "Those people are the relatives of the prisoners killed or missing from the jail uprising, waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones."
We were frisked vigorously as we boarded the American Airlines flight to JFK. ON board, a CNN report showed that we had left behind a country where 170 people had died in the past three days; 140 of them were civilians (the total count would later pass 200). We left behind a country where many were expecting another coup attempt in 1993. I opened the Caracas photo book I had bought and looked at the sights we had planned on visiting but couldn't, hoping someday we'd be able to.