Between 1952-1958, a man named Marcos Perez Jimenez was dictator of Venezuela, where I was born and lived at the time. He’s the dude in the image above. I still need to track down this issue of Time and find out why he was worthy of the cover.
Even as a kid, I remember seeing this man with the plump face on what passed as television at the time. I remember wondering who he was and why anyone would bother listening to this very boring person.
I was too young to understand that he sat on one of the largest oil reserves in the world- note all the oil derricks in the background of the cover image. Creole, the company where my dad worked as an accountant, was a subsidiary of Standard Oil, which was tapping into that gold. In fairness to Standard Oil, they built the rigs that drilled for that oil and the infrastructure that made the country uber wealthy for decades. But Standard Oil and companies from other countries were also incredibly invasive.
At one time, there were 8,000 Americans living in Venezuela, many more thousands from other countries who had established oil companies in Venezuela, and all of them had created “camps” (neighborhoods) where the families of their employees lived. They established clinics and hospitals for their employees. They basically took over the country in terms of profits. Back then, I didn’t really understand what that meant. I went to school, I had friends and a wonderful family life, pets, a sister, Christmas, summer vacations. I went to an American school with a cool library.
Our life was good, prosperous, fascinating. We lived in a second floor apartment in the Las Mercedes neighborhood of Caracas that faced the mountains. Directly across the street from us from a river contained by cement walls that was actually more of a sewage ditch. In retrospect, crime under the dictatorship was relatively low. Under Perez Jimenez, the country prospered, the poor who lives in ranchitos – shacks- along the mountainside had enough to eat and some even had TVs and cars.
Now and then, we had days off from school when a revolution was imminent, when the rebellious factions of the military and other facets of the governments threatened to overthrow the Jimenez dictatorship. I remember my mother and I rushing to the auto mercado to buy supplies, not unlike what we I do now when a hurricane is imminent – and finding the shelves bare. What I didn’t realize then was that Jimenez was constantly confronted with opposing factions in the populace and that he, like other dictators throughout history, had secret police who hunted down and imprisoned anyone who opposed his policies.
The revolution didn’t happen until one night in January 1958, when I was nearly eleven. My mother came running into the room I shared with my sister and woke us. “You have to see this,” she said. “The dictator is fleeing the country.”
We leaped out of bed and hurried out to the front porch where my dad was. In the distance, along the autopista- the highway that led through Caracas down 3,000 feet to the port and airport – was a line of cars, headlights burning through the darkness. Jimenez and his entourage were leaving the country with, we later learned, $13 million they’d embezzled from the government.
And the one clear thought I had from that night, as I stood on our porch watching history, was that a way of life was ending for me and my family and it wouldn’t be long before we, too, would be leaving this country. And we did, in 1963, when the Venezuelan government nationalized the oil industry and pretty much kicked out the American companies that had helped build and integrate the lucrative oil industry into the Venezuelan economy.
In the decades since, Venezuela has enjoyed booms and busts. Right now, it’s a crippled country where people are hungry, there’s a scarcity of everything, the valley is horribly polluted, and life is pretty grim.
In a Trump presidency, this same reality may come to pass. The parameters and specifics may be different, but the secret police, the censorship, the greed, could easily unfold. He does share, after all, certain attributes with Hitler. When I put this on Facebook, the vitriol was incredible – and sad.
But the world now is not the world as it was during WWII and the world of the 1950s and 60s is drastically changed from what the world is today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century. We have nearly instantaneous access to information with videos and photos and hundreds of thousands of apps that capitalize on this. I often wonder if Steve Jobs understood the magnitude of what became possible when Apple issued the iPhone in 2007 and that beautiful phone came with a camera and video capabilities.
The day after the election, Rob and I were running errands and happened to be behind a truck with a trickster message on the back of it:
No matter where we are, what we’re doing, our phones are powerful tools that enable us to document the small and large moments in our lives. And these moments come through all the social media and record those moments about the tectonic changes happening in the larger world.
Frankly, I don’t think a dictator has a prayer in this 21st century America. But when I look at the people Trump is appointing to his cabinet… I invariably think that Costa Rica looks better by the second. They love Americans. And in case Paul Ryan makes good on his promise to eradicate Medicare, Medicaid and privatize Social Security, Costa Rica has a universal health care system that works and is inexpensive. And we can write anywhere.
But my hope is that it doesn’t come to that. My hope is that even though the electoral college voted in a man whose platform is about racism, isolationism, hatred of women and anyone else who isn’t a white male, that our more evolved selves will prevail.