Venezuela is having a very bad year.
Although possessing one of the richest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela is in financial crisis. The country is so broken by unemployment, many Venezuelans have turned to jobs they never imagined, like panning for black market gold in the jungle mines where malaria is rampant. Food shortages are a daily concern, forcing the people to cross into Columbia for basic supplies. The situation is so dire, the President has even considered enforcing a law to mandate forced labor on farms for citizens who are unemployed in order to increase food production.
What is it like to live in a country in constant crisis?
For Alejandro, the answer lies in the Venezuelan sky.
How I Found Alejandro
Many years ago, when I first began research on my novel set in WWII Iceland, I joined an online group dedicated to enthusiasts and veterans who had a passion for PBYs, the bulbous seaplanes that flew rescue, search, and surveillance over the seas during WWII. I am forever indebted to many members of that group who helped me understand the significance and sacrifice of PBYs and the men who flew them. Recently, I checked in with the group and discovered it had a relatively new member, Alejandro from Venezuela. I immediately contacted him and asked him if I could interview him. Graciously, he agreed.
Alejandro was born in “La Comunidad Cardón”, a petroleum refinery camp in the Paraguaná Peninsula, Falcón State, Venezuela. He studied aeronautical engineering at IUPFAN, Maracay, Aragua State, as a civilian in a military institution (now known as UNEFA). Disappointed by the lack of career opportunities in his field, he worked for a time in the petroleum, manufacturing, and automotive industries in sales and quality and environmental assurance before returning to a career in the aviation industry.Today he lives in San Diego, Venezuela with his wife, son, and daughter. He and his wife work from home. Because of fears for her safety, they walk their teenage daughter to and from school every day.
Please look out a window and tell me what you see.
The beautiful western mountain range that encloses the San Diego valley. At this time of year, thanks to several rains, it is very green. I also see the San Diego main avenue, flanked by high trees, and a number of birds.
How has life in Venezuela changed from when you were a little boy?
A very sad question. It has changed a lot. People have now to do lines to purchase food, to buy medicines or to buy spare parts for cars, just to mention some areas. People can’t travel internally or externally anymore. People can’t be outside their home (or even inside it) without the fear of being assaulted or even killed. The political related hate is very high too.
This question comes from one of my readers, Claire, who correctly identified this photo as a barrio in Venezuela. Congrats, Claire!
With all that is going on in Venezuela right now, I wonder where Alejandro finds joy. What makes him smile or even laugh? - Claire St. John, St. Charles, Illinois
Venezuelans always have a joke at hand. We laugh at everything, even at the expenses of our own disgraces. There is going to be a joke always coming from your spouse, your son or daughter. I also find joy in listening to music and singing, either by myself or with my daughter. And I find joy in the historical research on the Venezuela civil aviation I do regularly, for which I am well known right now. The last, is my way to keep my mind out of the crisis while doing something productive
If I came to dinner at your house, what would you prepare for me?
An eggplant lasagna (“Pasticho”); or chicken baked in wine, guarded by potatoes, with plenty of salad. Or some filled “arepas”, our national maizebread (recently regarded as the better breakfast in the world. We used to eat them at any time of the day). Unfortunately, right now, those dishes are prohibitive for us, and the precooked corn flour used for the arepas is hard to come by.
In terms of natural beauty and culture, what are the best things about Venezuela?
In terms of natural beauty: everything. Venezuela is graced with a sample of all the kind of landscapes you may hope for, and each one is just an hour or two of drive one from another. Beach, mountain, desert, jungle, rivers, plains, islands, lakes. Everything is here, and everything is beautiful.
In terms of culture, our music, representative of each of those places mentioned before. Unfortunately, this month we lost Master Alirio Díaz, considered one of the best classic guitar players of the world. In essence, he played mainly Venezuelan music.
Which languages do you speak?
I do speak Venezuelan Spanish and English, and a bit of Portuguese. English is a must for my career.
What frightens you?
The shortages of food, and the lack of funds to buy it. Also our personal security when we go to the streets. And our health. We can’t really take care of our health.
What do you think is the answer to the troubles in your country?
The immediate answer is to achieve the referendum. We need an urgent change of government and of government policies. But at the end, what we need to is learn how to be real, better citizens, ones that truly respect the constitution (also regarded as the best in the world, at least on paper), and assure overall that our leaders respect it too. The answer is education, not indoctrination. I give out my part by mentoring aeronautical engineering students.
What is a misconception about Venezuela that you would like to set straight?
There is a current big misconception about Venezuela and what Hugo Chavez achieved. It was caused by the Chavista propaganda: Hugo Chavez did not nationalize the petroleum industry; it was already nationalized, since 1975. Hugo Chavez did not make the education and health services free for Venezuelans, Venezuela does have free education for all since 1870, and free health services existed way before Chavez.
What are your dreams for Venezuela?
We dream of a country which wealth does not depend on the price of the oil barrel, but on the intelligence and hard work of its people. We dream of a country in which the tourism of both visitors and locals is the main source of income, an income that could pay for the conservation of the very same places people visit. We dream of a country where we can share with family and friends without fear. We dream of a country in which education is managed to satisfy the needs of development of the people and the country, where the creative power can reach its full potential. We dream about being happy again, in our own soil, without the need to migrate to a country which at the end it is not better than our own.
What is something people might not know about Venezuela?
Venezuela was the first continental mainland of all the Americas that was reached and stepped upon by Christophorus Columbus back in August 1498, at his third voyage. He arrived at a small town named Macuro, at the Paria Peninsula, in the east coast of Venezuela, near Trinidad. Even some Venezuelans do not know that! It is now a forgotten place.
What is your opinion of the United States? Our president?
Once a great country. Unfortunately not anymore.
Coincidentally, after writing this, I saw the U.S. First Lady's speech. I sustain my opinion.
Our life style at the petroleum camps was highly influenced by the U.S. way of life. I admire the country's technology, freedoms for creating and profit from stuff, open economy, etc. But socially the tendencies do simply scare me. I don’t like the path the U.S. society is taking (or is being taken to).
I don’t really have an opinion on Obama. From what I understand he has been a good president. And all the Venezuelan propaganda against his decisions on us is just that, propaganda. What really scare me are the current presidential candidates! Both of them!
Is there a Venezuelan you admire?
Yes there is one, who has inspired me a lot. His name is Ruben Dario León Villasmil. He is a Venezuelan aerospace engineer who had built with his brother Carlos Vicente two of the Venezuelan experimental airplanes, both plans built. Currently his company in the U.S., Levil Aviation, leads the market for devices that allows you to supplement or even replace the instrument panel of your aircraft with an iPad. He is an engineering genius in all senses. If he needs something and the market does not offer it, he simply creates it. I saw him for the first time on TV when I was twelve and met him when I was twenty-five.
We have been friends ever since.
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Filed under: Travel
Tags: Alirio Diaz, Aragua State, arepas, Carlos Vincente, Falcon State, Hugo Chavez, Levil Aviation, Macuro, maizebread, Maracay, Paraguana Peninsula, Paria Peninsula, pasticho, PBY Catalina, PBY Groups, PBYs, Ruben Dario Leon Villasmil, San Diego, Trinidad, UNEFA, Venezuela, WWII