That’s pretty much all there is to Parapara, a town of maybe 1,000 people in a parish of some 3,500, located thirty kilometers south of Guarico’s capital, where the coastal mountains finally give way to Venezuela’s vast central plains.
Arrive in Parapara on a Tuesday morning and the place is oddly idyllic: doors open and people chatting in a Plaza Bolívar that really works like a Plaza Bolívar is supposed to – as an open-air community center where folk of all ages and political views come together.
Depending on which numbers you believe, 12-20% of Venezuelans live in towns like this – easily more than live in Caracas. Yet they seldom get polled, or talked about, or listened to, or strategized over in political circles. And while a day spent chatting up folks up and down the main plaza in a single town does not a comprehensive study make, given the almost complete lack of political debate about rural areas in Venezuela’s public sphere, we thought it was important to give it a go.
“Crime?” says one of a group of high school kids we stop to chat with, “no man, that’s in San Juan. Here, listen, you could leave a stack of bills lying on that park bench there in the morning, walk off, come back in the evening and find it waiting for you. Aquí todo el mundo se conoce, that kind of thing doesn’t happen.”
I shoot Juan a staggered look that says, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Up and down the town’s two streets you see “Hay Un Camino” signboards and stenciled Pablo Pérez murals. We ask the kids who put those up.
“I guess people from San Juan came down,” says one, to general nods. The opposition is certainly visible here, but the kids can’t think of a single activist in town.
We ask the kids about their high school and they’re all into it. One of them wants to be a doctor, another wants to go to technical school. All but one, whose family farms, want to get the hell out of Dodge when they graduate: most of them to San Juan or Calabozo, one or two to Caracas. They have dreams, projects, aspirations. Just one of them is old enough to vote, and she’s not quite sure if she’ll participate in the primary.
“That Capriles seems ok,” she says, but then remembers “of course all my family is chavista.” She’s 18, politics is not high in her list of priorities.
None of her friends recoil in horror at the thought of her supporting Capriles. “Yeah,” one of the boys says “he seemed ok, Capriles. He even went to San Juan de los Morros and they brought a bus here to take people up to see him. I guess a few people from town went up, not many. I’m with Capriles.”
Then they go back to flirting with each other, but not without getting Juan’s name so they can add him on Facebook. Every kid there is on Facebook, they tell us. They really wish they had broadband, though.
On the other side of the Plaza is the ancestral home of Joaquín Crespo. It lies in ruins, covered in Pablo Pérez pintas. Crespo was also wise enough to get out of town, going on to build a bigger, better house.
Next door is Parapara’s Casa de la Cultura, a small community cultural center housed in the town’s last remaining Colonial-era house that’s in good repair. Inés, the lady taking care of it, takes a few minutes to tell us about the place. She says they hold crafts lessons, music and dance workshops, and they have a library. In the corner, a group of men are discussing upcoming activities in their sporting cooperative. In the room next door is where they practice their llanero music and their Joropo, Inés tells us. El Llano es música, Juan responds.
The library is blessedly ideology-free – the usual beat-up tomes of Eduardo Blanco and Rómulo Gallegos coexist next to dusty tomes of Enciclopedia Salvat, but nothing by Luis Britto García or Eva Golinger. The books seem to have been read.
As we walk out, Inés goes back to her radio program. Everyone listens to the radio in these parts.
Back out in the plaza we meet a set of guys – ages between 30 and 50 – from one of the 23 (23!) Community Councils in town. Their big thing is Misión Vivienda: they’ve gotten the green light to build two dozen new houses in town, in a place called La Lechera. Basically, that means the government has promised them materials so they can build some new homes themselves. They hold weekly meetings out on the street in front of his house and vote on every aspect of the project.
But the guys are frustrated. The red tape around the Misión is driving them crazy. “I had to go up to San Juan to get the one permit rubber stamped so I could send the second request for building materials up to Caracas, and then we have to wait. Eventually I guess we’ll rent a truck to go down to Calabozo to get the stuff but then we also need to work out the paperwork with the controllers who have to verify we didn’t steal it.”
He goes into detail on each part of the administrative obstacle course he needs to navigate just to get some building blocks and zinc roofing sheets for the self-built homes. It’s taken him months. No new homes are up yet.
They are all chavista, but they’re not sucking their thumbs. We ask about the opposition primary and while they’re not planning to vote, they are pretty well aware of who the candidates are and they sure don’t see it as a taboo to vote. “I guess some people in town are going to vote, and that’s good: vote in February and then vote again in October. I don’t know why the opposition says there’s no democracy here,” he says, pointing out the opposition propaganda hanging all over town.
It’s hard to deny he has a point.
This particular crowd is probably out of the opposition’s reach. They’re very skeptical. “I just heard Henrique Capriles say that he hasn’t taken away any resources from any of the Misiones in Miranda State. He must think we’re stupid, because everybody knows the money for the Misiones comes from the National Government. Of course he hasn’t taken away any money, he wasn’t giving it to them in the first place! So if you start out lying to us…”
Capriles doesn’t pass the credibility test with them, but when I ask them if they think they might be able to work with a Capriles administration they don’t recoil in horror. They’re skeptical rather than dismissive.
Then one of them launches into a rant, “And what about that Corina?! She’s crazy! That shit about Popular Capitalism, where did that come from? Man, if she was on 5% when she started, as soon as she said that she must have dropped to 3!”
The guy is snarling, his buddies are guffawing. Capriles inspires weariness, María Corina contempt.
Pablo Pérez they don’t know what to think of. None of Perez’s messages seem to have gotten across, so they don’t really have an idea about him. They ask Juan why Zulianos just won’t back the revolution.
At least they know who the candidates are, we think to ourselves. They’ve even watched some of the debates. The opposition doesn’t have easy access to these guys, and a lot of the messages they’re getting seemed filtered through VTV, but it’s not a total shut-out either.
We ask them about crime. Contrary to the high-school kids, they say that recent infrastructure projects have brought people in from other towns, and bad stuff is happening. One of them even tells Quico that cocaine is available in town. We ask if they believe this is Chávez’s fault, and they disagree.
“Mexico,” one of them says, “is much worse,” seemingly unaware that they are repeating PSUV talking points. “It’s all the fault of the Americans who consume so much drugs. I know how that society is. I watch The Simpsons.”
Down the street we meet a street-cleaning crew from the Alcaldía, the local government, sweeping the street. Parapara is a rural parish within the more urban Roscio municipality, which includes San Juan de los Morros, the State Capital. The mayor here is actually opposition, a former PSUV, now PPT guy called Franco Guerratana who got 37% of the votes in Parapara but 46% in San Juan (in a three-way race).
We stopped in our tracks when we realized they were all wearing different kinds of shirts – “Hay un Camino”, “PSUV”, “UNT.” We ask about the apparel. They shrug and say they got the shirts and caps from different campaigns. Anything is good if it shields you from the unforgiving midday sun.
“Yeah, we’re going to vote in the primary,” one of the street cleaners tells us, “they’re going to force us to. We work for the Alcaldía, see?”
These guys are a lot poorer and less educated than the Community Council guys in the plaza. They don’t seem to have any real political ideas – what they believe in is clientelism.
“Of course, you have to vote for the guy who gives you a hand,” one of them says, “así es la vaina.”
But they’re bitter. Sweeping the streets in Parapara for minimum wage makes for a hard life, and one of the group doesn’t even have that.
“There used to be day labor here,” he says, “guys in trucks would come and pick you up to work in the lemon fields, picking peppers or tending corn or the cattle. It’s been years since that happened, though.”
Skinny, rugged, wearing a pelo’e’guama hat, the guy is a dead ringer for Juan Bimba.
We ask them about the Community Councils. They’re scathing. “There are 23 community councils in Parapara: 22 of them do nothing. Nothing! They just grab the money. There’s just one, up there in La Lechera, that’s really trying to do something. The rest? Well, maybe they get a couple of jobs to hand out, and then they give them out to their cousins.”
“That’s what it is, it doesn’t matter who has power here: if they have a job, some help, any kind of benefit, they’re going to give it to their cousin.”
Life is hard for these guys, ideology an unattainable luxury. Politics for them is a raw matter of power and survival: politicians have jobs to give out, they need jobs to survive. With private sector jobs extremely thin on the ground, finding a way into clientelist networks is a matter of life-or-death for them.
But lacking the education to set up their own corrupt networks, and lacking the family contacts and social capital to hook into existing ones, they’re entirely forlorn. For now they sweep streets for minimum wage in the harsh mid-day sun.
Life in Parapara is no bed of roses. This is neither a revolutionary nirvana nor a seething opposition stronghold. It’s a place where big words such as “socialism,” “Cuba,” “dignity,” and “fatherland” seem distant, far removed from people’s actual concerns.
Back in 2007, Juan wrote that until the opposition had a presence in places like this, it would be hard to compete with Chávez nationally. Today, the opposition has a tenuous reach into the town – largely shipped in from neighboring San Juan de los Morros – whether in terms of propaganda posters or of municipal jobs.
It’s easy to exaggerate chavismo’s dominance in the town, though. Hundreds of Paraparans do vote for the opposition, and always have.
But the coat-tail effects associated with having an opposition mayor are a little disappointing: in 2008, Franco Guerratana’s machine certainly did pull votes over and above than the opposition trend, but that didn’t really seem to carry over into 2009 and 2010.
Some opposition messages do get through, but they land in a town where chavista social organization – for good and for ill – is solidly entrenched.
The opposition has little chance of winning in Parapara. But at least they have something of a presence there.
That is a big improvement.