Monday, August 28, 2006

Political Tourism?

I saw this article in the Wall Street Journal and I just find it hard to believe that people would spend their hard-earned money to visit a country spiraling into anti-democratic populism supposedly for the purposes of educating themselves. Some excerpts are below. Emphasis and [commentary] is mine. It's really true that the editorial page of the Journal is completely different politically than than the reporters.

PURSUITS; Travel: Chasing Chavez: The Other Havana; With tighter restrictions on Americans' travel to Cuba, Venezuela is marketed as an alternative

By Stan Sesser
Aug 26, 2006

Rio Chico, Venezuela -- JUDY LUBIN, who runs a Rockville, Md.-based public-relations company for nonprofit groups, is taking her first vacation in four years. She's spending most of it here at the Rio Chico Hotel, a dingy, broken-down place that's surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. The shower is a pipe poking through the wall that spouts cold water. The town isn't in much better shape; the first business on the main street to open in the morning, at 8 a.m., is a liquor store.

For Ms. Lubin, who learned about the Venezuela trip when she looked for a Cuba vacation on the Internet, the Rio Chico Hotel is hardly her first choice for lodgings. But she and 15 other Americans are sacrificing comfort to take a look at a country mired in controversy. They want to see first-hand life under Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is well known for his populist rhetoric and pledges to use oil revenue to benefit poor people, as well as his courting of repressive regimes like Cuba and Iran.

"I'd never heard of 'Afro-Venezuelan' culture," says Ms. Lubin, of the term used by our tour operator for the impoverished black minority community that makes its home near Rio Chico. "Who are they? How are they treated here? I like being able to learn about things."

Political tourism, much like ecotourism, appeals to people looking to experience a place beyond its well-traveled routes. While in the past, some might have made such a trek to Cuba, tighter restrictions on "educational" travel imposed by the Bush administration in 2004 have limited these trips. The move was a bid to win Cuban-American voters in Miami in the lead up to the elections. [And perhaps to keep American hard currency out of the hands of a murderous tyrant]

Now, some of the same Americans who would have visited Cuba are eyeing another politically controversial country whose leader is Fidel Castro's closest ally. Earlier this month, Mr. Chavez visited the bedridden Castro and met with interim president Raul Castro. Although the two countries differ in many ways -- Venezuela, for one, is a democracy [For how long?], albeit a contentious and sometimes violent one -- Venezuela may strike some travelers as the new Cuba. And with Mr. Chavez's globetrotting attempts to form an anti-U.S. alliance making headlines lately, the country seemed like an apt choice to experience political tourism.

Indeed, my tour primarily comprised visits to see projects that purportedly demonstrate how oil revenues are making life better for the large number of impoverished Venezuelans -- although critics say the billions of dollars being spent are buying political loyalty without attempting to provide real solutions to the country's endemic problems. For instance, we spent a considerable amount of time in poor communities of black Venezuelans, descendents of African slaves. We also visited a community center involved in adult education in Caracas with a portrait of Che Guevara painted on the outside wall, and a women's sewing cooperative established with low-interest government loans.

"Once Bush says Venezuela is a threat to the hemisphere, people want to see for themselves what is happening," says Zach Hurwitz, who heads the Latin American program for Global Exchange. [No, only an idiot would think that.]

No one could accuse Caracas, where our tour started, of being a Potemkin village. The warnings of our group organizers about crime were more than perfunctory; the city has by many accounts experienced a surge of crime in recent years that makes it inadvisable to walk anywhere after dark. The day before I arrived, one Global Exchange group leader was confronted by a teenage boy who threatened to pull a gun. The next day this group leader and I were walking on a crowded downtown street during the afternoon rush hour when a young man jumped me from behind and attempted, unsuccessfully, to pry my mobile phone out of my pants pocket. When I shouted for help, none of the dozens of passersby around me responded.

On the way back to the Caracas airport, the jarring reality of Venezuela today -- a country with enough turmoil and confusion to make any predictions about its future perilous -- once again interceded. Because the main road had huge traffic jams, my driver took side roads to save time. One of these roads was blocked with barricades manned by several young men, who wouldn't let cars pass without a contribution for "road maintenance." Just as with Cuba, there would be plenty for any tourist to talk about back at home.

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