Forget all Your Troubles, Forget all Your Cares

A great philosopher once taught us that when you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown. When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry seems to help, I know: downtown. 

Except in Caracas, Petula. Until about two months ago, the centro has been a longtime home to petty theft and outright mugging, stabbings and gunfights. Mixed in with historic churches and the grand Plaza Bolívar were pickpockets and pistoleros. After dark, people fled the area, running for the metro station in a circle-the-wagons formation.

But the downtown story has shifted recently, as the local government has pumped money and heavily armed police into the center, running off the buhoneros and, at least while the sun shines, most of the crime. It’s a safer place now, and locals and very occasional tourists are starting to come back.

My caraqueño pal Agustín took me to the centro last weekend for my first look at Caracas’ downtown. After seven months, it was about damn time. (This is embarrassing, to have ignored it for so long, but keep in mind that for a lot of folks here, saying “Let’s go downtown” is like proposing a Fourth of July American flag festival in central Tehran.) We took the metro heading west to the Capitolio stop–no finer place, for sure–emerging a block away from Plaza Bolívar, where old men fed pigeons and little girls rode around on tricycles, not a bad guy in sight. Workers were setting up the stage and chairs for an afternoon concert and dance, a semi-moribund Sunday afternoon tradition that’s slowly making a return.

Agustín led me to the historic house of Simón Bolívar, who’s revered here in the same way Jefferson is in Virginia: part saint, part mythical father. Like Jefferson, Bolívar had his faults, but they’re largely overlooked, especially by revolutionary chavistas for whom Bolívar is essentially a deity. The house is one of very few old structures in the centro, after an enormous 1812 earthquake leveled most of the city. In 1967, another earthquake damaged remaining historic buildings. But the National Assembly still stands, as well as the church where Bolívar was confirmed and a few other colonial-era buildings. 

I had the right tour guide in Agustín, a guy whose family has deep roots here. That wall-size painting filling a room in Bolivar’s house? The artist was a friend of Agustín’s great-grandfather, and he used the old man as a model for an aristocratic military figure with goatee and flag. That stern woman looking out of a gilded frame? A cousin, several times removed. The great ceiba tree overlooking the assembly was the site of the first stock exchange in Venezuela, later overseen by a great-aunt. We stopped for a café marron at the Revolutionary Bolivarian Socialist coffee shop, wandered the pedestrian malls, took in the sights of once-great markets now empty after government expropriations. (Say what you will about Revolutionary Bolivarian Socialism, but they can make a great cup of coffee. Seriously, this is good stuff, even if you’re a neoliberal free marketeer.)

Monday at work, I chatted with Socorro, one of the nice cleaning ladies who work in the high school. She asked, what did you do this weekend, Profe? Well, I said, I went to the centro. She practically jumped out of her skin. The centro! But not alone? And you’re okay? Were you robbed? No, yes, and no. Todo fino. The good word about the centro hasn’t spread yet, but let me help: the lights are much brighter there; you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. Maybe I’ll see you there. Downtown.

Agustín tells me that there are three major sports in Venezuela: football, baseball, and politics. Baseball is over for the season here, and the national soccer team is out of town, which leaves politics as the main entertainment, and it’s heating up in a big way. There were rumors last week that president Hugo was sick again, which various government ministers denied furiously on television… until a few hours later
Chávez rejected the rumors by admitting they were true. Chávez went a few days ago to Cuba for surgery to remove what he called a “lesion,” after he’d previously declared himself cured of the unspecified cancer he’d been treated for last fall. In short, nobody knows what’s happening, and everybody has a theory. The opposition candidate wishes Chávez a long life, so he can see the changes coming for the country after the October election. Bases loaded, two outs. Stay tuned.


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