Usually, I tune out all mass-media traveloguery. Having been to j-school (and having had the misfortune to study under a “magazine writing” instructor who preferred throwaway travel and celebrity puff pieces to actual, worth-paying-money-for MAGAZINE JOURNALISM), I guess I’m just plain prejudiced. I certainly had a lot of blinders ripped off my eyes as to what passes for “good” in the Industry–and in a word, it is DRIVEL. It has to be; it’s just page-filler. Its sole purpose is to take up the space the advertisers didn’t want, and to titillate the casual newsstand browser into buying a fish-wrapper or birdcage-liner she probably didn’t want either. If magazines could be all ads and still get bought on the newsstand by paying customers, trust me–they would be. But we fickle consumers, we still insist on some semblance of substance, however vague. And if we wanted to read nothing but ads, there’s all that junkmail cluttering up our recycle bins.
It should go without saying that the people who write those expensive, cloth-bound travel guidebooks have actually done a lot more homework than the professional tacky tourists who “do travel writing” for The Media. (Stands to reason; they don’t have to fill non-ad space, and they have to be certain that their writing will be of use to someone–and not end up getting pulped for toilet paper.)
And I’m positively certain that well-travelled progressives could revolutionize the travel-book industry if they ever chose to go that way. Happily (or unhappily, depending on where you sit, yearning for progressive adventures), they’re not in the Baedeker business. Leftists may profit from their travels, but they don’t travel for profit. They’re in it for something more than money. They don’t give a hang if they’ve seduced you into shelling out for a package tour of the latest ecotourism hotspot (and if they do, you can be sure that they’re NOT real leftists). What they do care about, is making sure that whoever deigns to read gets an accurate, socially-aware picture of what’s going on elsewhere–the good and the not-so alike.
I bring this up for a reason.
Today, my Google Alert dropped not one, but TWO “been to Venezuela and decided to write about it” pieces in my inbox. One, in Slate, embodies exactly what I hold in such contempt about “travel writing”. The other, in Monthly Review, is why I lust for a leftist Lonely Planet series.
Let’s start (with clothespin affixed firmly to nose) on the Slate piece.
I don’t like arriving in a new city early in the morning. You and the city are both still groggy, exposed; the pulse-racing anticipation of discovery is deadened by the overnight flight. It’s like agreeing to go on a first date at 6 a.m. No, I’d rather make my first landing at night, when the shimmering lights only hint at what is soon to be unveiled.
And believe it or not, that unoriginal schlock was the best prose in the entire piece. The rest flits breathlessly between irrelevant digressions (the author devotes two lengthy, soporific paragraphs to singing the praises of his half-Venezuelan, mostly-Spanish travelling companion, Amanda), things we already know (“one of the things Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro share is a passion for el imperio‘s pastime—as a teenager Chávez also aspired to play pro baseball”), things we really didn’t need or even want to know (the fair Amanda hates baseball; well, bully for you, Amanda!), and things we could just as easily find out from viewing a video (“Caracas is a sprawling mess of a city laid out in a beautiful valley, with shantytowns and ultraposh neighborhoods competing to take over the commanding heights of surrounding hillsides”).
Unfortunately, when it comes to factoids, you could do just as well by reading the neoliberal crapaganda in El Universal. To wit:
Venezuela has an official exchange rate, set by the government, in the neighborhood of 2,000 bolivares to the dollar, a rate that is more aspirational than real. On the street, people are eager to give you between 4,000 and 6,000 bolivares to the dollar. (Following in the footsteps of plenty of other nations that have run their currencies into the ground, on the first day of 2008 Venezuela introduced the “bolivar fuerte,” knocking three zeroes off the old currency.)
Of course, if that were true, then those people “on the street” either really don’t need the money, or they’re ripping themselves the hell off. The greenback is teetering on the cliff, needing only one stiff breeze from China to send it over the edge. Someone kindly inform them of that before they go broke like all the others who embraced gringo globalization. And someone please inform Slate’s hack that the old, weak bolivar was not trading at 2,000,000 to the dollar, as his piece erroneously suggests! (And while you’re at it, could you also let him know that the country with the world’s largest oil reserves can damn well set the worth of its currency any place it collectively pleases?)
To persuade us of his econmic expertise, the author informs us: “Having grown up in Mexico, I am familiar with the melodrama of exchange controls and the corrupting nature of fictional rates. Mexico had to go this route when the country went broke in the early 1980s. But it is absurd to watch a government made ever more prosperous by surging oil revenues embrace such nonsense.”
Really? Well, what a pity you didn’t grow up in Argentina, dude. They could tell you a thing or two about “fictional rates” of currency exchange. They pegged their peso to the dollar during the Neoliberal Nineties, only to unpeg it sometime after Carlos Menem had sold the whole friggin’ country out from under its citizens’ feet. Once the local and foreign rich had taken their killings offshore (in US dollars, in the dead of the night, complete with siren-blaring police escorts for the armored Prosegur trucks), Argentina experienced such a currency devaluation as to make the country go through five presidents in less than a month, and default on a debt worth $93 billion. You want a currency crisis? That‘s a currency crisis, man.
The dirtiest little open secret in the world is that none of the usual suspects–whether Peronism or protectionism or the peculiarities of the Argentine psyche–actually caused the crisis. The culprit was none other than the globalized economy itself. If you don’t believe me, read Naomi Klein; she spells it right out. Every country that has ever taken the advice of the World Bank and the IMF has just barely lived to regret it. Every country that has ever told either institution to piss off has managed to climb out of its hole sooner, and with fewer of the very repercussions the orthodox economists keep telling us are “inevitable” for anyone who refuses to comply with “conditionalities”–unemployment (due to lack of foreign “investment”), inflation, stagflation, etc. They don’t boom as spectacularly, but they don’t go bust, either. That’s because, unlike Argentina, they are not so heavily dependent on exports; they have more endogenous development. A strong internal economy, it turns out, is the best buffer against a bust brought on by neoliberalism!
Now, Venezuela knows a thing or two about neoliberalism-induced busts. Venezuela went bust sooner than anyone else, back in 1989. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, and Carlos Andres Perez came to power, Venezuela was forcibly submitted to the IMF’s conditionalities. The Caracazo was the inevitable result; the riots and the subsequent authoritarian crackdown not only resulted in a massive national fire sale (“privatization”, in foreign hands of course), but in the military revolt whose anniversary Venezuela celebrated just today.
The ringleader of that military revolt is someone you already know. He is now Venezuela’s president. And one of his constant themes (besides gringo imperialism) is the crying need for endogenous development. Venezuela used to be self-sufficient in food, and before oil, its #1 export commodity was cocoa. In fact, the cacao bean is believed by experts to be indigenous to Venezuela; it evolved there, and eventually spread northward into Mexico, where Cortez subsequently “discovered” it–as the royal drink of Montezuma’s court (and probably a fermented beverage with the same alcoholic content as a strong beer). It was so valuable that it was served in gold goblets that were thrown away after a single use!
But I digress.
The point is, Venezuela shouldn’t have to import a bite of food; it has enough arable land that, if properly managed, can feed everyone and probably also export a fair bit of high-quality cocoa (a boon to us chocoholics, considering that Ghana’s crop is in trouble and the price of cocoa could go sky-high as a result). If Venezuela is heavily import-dependent, it is not due to any laziness or other peculiarity of the Venezuelan psyche, any more than the Argentine financial crisis could be blamed on laziness or schizophrenia on the part of the Argentines. It is because (and if you have read Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, you will already know this) the imperialists who “built” the c
ountry in the first place, built it to bleed ad infinitum.
Eduardo Galeano’s book, by the way, is published by Monthly Review‘s book division (which, I hope, will one day consider expanding its list to include travel guides with a progressive relevance).
Which brings me rather nicely around to the Monthly Review piece: it’s a goodie. I won’t dissect it here, other than to say that it has everything the Slate piece lacks.