By Anthony Milne
The Biggest Sport of All
Why, I asked during my recent trip to Caracas, is Venezuela not a football-playing country in the league of its talented, football-crazy neighbours Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil?
First, I was told, there is the North American influence that came with the arrival of the big oil companies. The most popular sport in Caracas and many other Venezuelan cities is baseball. Venezuelans are as baseball-crazy as, oddly enough, the Cubans. There are highly-talented Venezuelans making big money in the North American leagues. But, while the popularity of baseball leaves Venezuela without football teams to match those of other South American countries, national pride dictates that they continue to play and to lose against the powerhouse South American football teams rather than join Concacaf, the league where the weaker teams play. Western and eastern Venezuela--Maracaibo and Cuman--are the regions where football is most popular, its influence creeping across the border from Colombia on the one side, and from Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean on the other. Basketball is also gaining in popularity, with boys playing in the streets and local teams engaging in organized competition, while the corridas (bullfights) are less well-attended, though still popular outside Caracas.
But the really big game in Caracas and the rest of Venezuela is politics. The campaign to elect President Hugo Rafael Chavez Fracas's National Constituent Assembly is under way in the Congress, on television, in the banner-strung streets and in street-corner meetings where candidates with megaphones occasionally give way to four-piece string bands and couples dancing a sedate Venezuelan castillon or jorop.
The campaign and election are being supervised by the National Electoral Council and is scheduled to take place on Sunday, July 25th--coincidentally the last official day of this year's pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, the Apostle James, in northwestern Spain. Santiago was patron of the war to free Spain from Muslim rule.
The role of the Constituent Assembly will be to write a new constitution for Venezuela, with likely revised roles and powers for the president, congress, courts and local governments. Approval of the new constitution will be followed by a presidential and congressional election.
Chavez became President of Venezuela, at the helm of a coalition called Polo Patritico (Patriotic Assembly), last December, replacing Rafael Caldera. His platform was radical- nationalist and anti-corruption, the latter aimed at Venezuela's rich elite. He promised to reform Venezuela's political system to make it more democratic.
Chavez is a hero to most of Venezuela's 23 million citizens, a large portion of whom live in poverty. He has even encouraged the poor to move onto unoccupied land. In 1992, when still a paratrooper in the Venezuelan army, Chavez attempted a coup against President Carlos Andres Perez and was subsequently jailed for his attempt. He was pardoned two years later, at the same time charges of corruption were brought against Perez. Chavez's radical vision feeds on widespread anger with public institutions and the widely held opinion that traditional political parties are profiting from the massive oil wealth while the living standards of the majority decline.
Inflation is rampant. The bolivar, which four or five years ago was exchanged at 40 to the US dollar, now hovers around 600 to the dollar, and continues to decline. All this in a country the size of Britain and France combined which is one of the world's largest oil producers. Venezuela also produces steel, has hydroelectric power and a vast potential for agriculture and tourism.
A swarthy mestizo, Chavez, is a man of frenetic energy and relentless will, moving quickly to put into effect his vision of a new Venezuela. His enemies, who represent a position that might loosely be described as the Polo Democratico (Democratic Assembly), say Chavez is simply managing his way to dictatorship, a continuation of the coup that failed in 1992. At the same time they maintain, incongruously, that he talks a lot but does nothing.
The one thing Chavez actually seems to be is doing is inspiring the people, giving them confidence in themselves, which in turn should result in more democratic institutions and the self-assurance necessary for economic development and privatisation on a vast scale. Occasionally he drops a hint that he shares the vision and energy of national hero Simon Bolivar, as his blonde wife Marisabel smiles approvingly beside him.
Some political observers feel Chavez has indeed begun to turn things around. Caracas's modern shops and malls, highrises and highways show no sign of economic distress, except for rising prices. But clinging to the hillsides around the city are poor barrios constructed of small brick and concrete houses--no doubt where Caracas's thousands of pavement vendors go each night after they have put away their goods.
Back to Betania
I had just missed a bus called "San Onofre" departing the terminus at Nuevo Circulo in Caracas for Betania, a farm sixty kilometres from Caracas near San Casimiro in the state of Miranda. There is a famous shrine there to Jesus's mother, called the Virgin of Betania, where there is said to have been apparitions and miracles.
Just the previous day I had discovered San Onofre, Venezuelan saint and Penitente del Desierto (Penitent of the Desert), and his shrine in the church of San Francisco in Caracas. I thought it would be a good omen to travel to Betania in a bus named after San Onofre himself.
Venezuela is more than ninety percent Catholic, and religious devotion enters almost every sphere of life. (The clock in a church tower near where I stayed chimes the Ave Maria every night at ten). Two important religious anniversaries are being celebrated in Venezuela this year: the quincentenary of the start of evangelisation, marked by an issue of stamps; and the centenary of the country's dedication to the Holy Sacrament.
The country's bishops, led by Caracas's Archbishop Monsignor Ignacio Antonio Velasco, have issued cautions about what may or may not be going on at the shrine in Betania. But the thousands of devout Venezuelans and their brethren in Trinidad who regularly organise group visits to the shrine are not deterred. One old Spanish Jesuit I met dismissed the whole thing as an engao (hoax) and expressed concern for the sanity of the woman, Sra Mara Esperanza Medrano de Bianchini, to whom the Virgin appeared five times between 1976 and 1984. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Los Teques declared officially in November, 1987 that the site at Betania could be officially considered sacred and an appropriate place for pilgrimages and prayer. To assist such pilgrims, the Tourism Corporation of Miranda has issued colourful, well-designed pamphlets, with the route from Caracas to Betania clearly indicated and information about the apparitions amply detailed.
Some think of the events in Betania as a positive manifestation of the reconciliation being urged upon the Venezuelan people to reform the oil-rich but economically beleagured country. I haven't heard anything about the president actually calling upon the Virgin by name, but "reconciliation and reconstruction" feature high in his political vocabulary.
I paid 1,000 bolivares, about eleven Trinidadian dollars, and boarded the big bus behind San Onofre, as vendors appeared at the windows hawking their wares. Then we were off, whizzing along through the traffic on one of the big autopistas leading out of Caracas, leaving behind the financial towers, squares, monuments and small concrete houses clinging to the suburban hillsides.
I saw green countryside as the bus climbed out of the big valley in which Caracas is situated--grassland and forests, some of the trees unfamilar--the ubiquitous boit canot, for instance. Occasionally I saw houses tucked away in the hillside alongside small farms, and a new low-cost housing project that seemed to be set down in the middle of nowhere. The air became noticeably cooler (Caracas is usually between 25- and 30-degrees centigrade) as the broad and impeccably surfaced two-lane road climbed higher, and I had to unblock my ears.
After about an hour and a half we reached Betania, the inevitable vendors waiting to greet us at the roadside. We climbed out of the bus and followed the other pilgrims down off the road and across a footbridge over a stream. There were plenty of people about, but the place was not bursting at the seams as I feared it might be. This was a Sunday, the next day being Venezuela's National Day, July 5th.
Mass was in progress. A sturdy wooden-roof church held up by white Roman pillars and open on two sides, was filled with worshippers. The yard was covered with mall stones. The shrine itself was located beside the church, fenced off by a barrier covered with flowers, bracelets, a naval-order medal and ribbon and signs giving thanks for answered prayers.
Nearby, a long line had formed to get to a series of taps in the hillside which provided sacred water. I lined up behind people washing their heads and hands and filling bottles. I washed my own face and hands and wet my hair to cast out the unclean spirit, then dipped into the water the tiny vest of an infant who was ill back in Trinidad.
I collected some small stones and a plant for my own purposes, joined in the mass for a while, then examined the booth selling religious items. Finally, I stood in the sun a few yards from the church and read from a Spanish New Testament (just in case) San Marco, ch. 9, v. 14-29, about El Nino Epilptico (the epileptic boy), for the sake of the child back in Trinidad as well as for myself.
St Mark's gospel relates the story of a child possessed by a powerful espritu mudo e inmundo (mute and unclean) which the boy's father asked Jesus to throw out, if he could.
?Mas Jesus le dijo: Que 'si puedes'? Todo es posible al que cree. (But Jesus said to him: What do you mean by 'if you can'? Everything is possible to a man who trusts). Al punto, el padre del nio a gritos deca: Creo; socorre a mi fe, aunque sea poco. (At once the father of the boy shouted out: I believe; help my lack of trust). And Jesus cast out the spirit from the possessed boy who, foaming at the mouth, fell to the ground as if dead for a moment.
The big bus on which I returned to Caracas--air-conditioned, with plush seats and red curtains to cover the windows--was a far cry from the one I had ridden to Betania. The driver wore a white long-sleeved shirt and had knotted his black tie carefully. He meticulously sorted videos to play on the bus's closed-circuit television and just as carefully selected some music cassettes. Nothing religious, mainly salsa.
His associate, who was responsible for handling money, wore jeans and a T-shirt and spent the entire journey sitting on the gearbox, chatting up a pretty girl in the front seat.
A few miles from Betania the bus stopped to pick up two paesinos with buckets of juice which they ladled into cups to sell to passengers. Fifteen minutes later the bus stopped to let them off, and a financial transaction took place between them and the driver's business associate.
The fat woman sitting next to me pretended she didn't have the fare--apparently a private joke between herself and the business associate. I showed her the roll of notes I kept in my shirt pocket (pickpockets always go for the side and rear pants pockets) and told her the money was from the collection taken up at the mass at Betania. Her fat shook with laughter. I laughed too and then nodded knowingly at other jokes she offered without having a clue to what she was saying.
The bus let us off at the Circo Nuevo bus terminus. I decided to walk the few blocks to my hotel, not really knowing how to get there. Suddenly I came across a white rambling one-storey house with the typical Spanish inner courtyards, built more than 200 years ago by Simon Bolivar's father, Pedro de Ponte Andrade Jaspe y Montenegro. Bolivar, El Libertador, a national hero of heroes, all but a saint in Venezuela, was born in this house 1783.
Next to Bolivar's father's house is the Simon Bolivar Museum, where the guard asked me to tuck my shirt in my pants, presumably out of respect for the Liberator. Half a block on was the grand Plaza Simon Bolivar, in the centre a huge statue of Bolivar on a rearing horse. I knew where I was now and soon found the Residencia San Francisco, next door to the church of the same name in El Silencio, near the Congress.

(Anthony Milne <amilne@trinidadexpress.com was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in  Canada and at the University of  the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about
everything else under the sun.)