The day after Hugo Chavez died the New York Times ran a remarkably ungenerous OpEd, titled, “In the End, an Awful Manager.” That the column appeared amid coverage of the sequester, threats of U.S. government shutdown, and other indicators of the systemic disfunction in play within the U.S., was either testament to the Times developed sense of irony or its bedrock cluelessness. Regardless, the story — with its railing against Chavez’s rule of disfunction, corruption and crumbling infrastructure — called up something else.
This writer happened to be in the Dominican Republic when Chavez died. If you fly due south over the Caribbean Sea, about six hundred miles from the DR, you will be in Caracas. Geographically it and Venezuela are close. In terms of the divides between rich and poor, between the ‘developing’ and ‘developed,’ between the way things are and they way they ought to be, these places are even closer. Indeed, the Dominican Republic, and larger parts of Latin America, hold much more in common with each other than they do with United States and the other centers of modern world. It is a much bigger matter than language. So while others ponder the larger legacy of Chavez, what is this world he has now left? A look at the Dominican Republic offers some clues.
When you deplane in Santo Domingo you wend your way through a modern and clean airport. Outside as you drive out through the landscaped grounds, the stunning blue of the Caribbean Sea takes your breath away. Then you get to the suburbs. Not much prepares you for the way in which luxury car dealerships are butted up against the most impressive squalor, shanty town shacks, and open air housing. Every intersection is rife with vendors; selling water, selling gum, selling iPhone chargers. There are also the Haitian women holding infants asking for change, who a travel partner pointed out are generally part of an organized network in the fashion of Slumdog Millionaire. Despite that, the desperation of it all is stunning. This is how a chunk of humanity is integrated into the global circulation of commodities.
If your hosts are middle class Dominicans you will find yourself welcomed — and there are many kind and welcoming people here — into a world that approximates what most people in the United States take for granted. The electricity stays on, there is air conditioning against the omnipresent heat, the food is fresh and healthy. You also will discover, more times than not that, no one of any means walks the streets at night. Homes for the better off include gates and 24-hour guards. The feeling of being ensconced in a model of a Middle Ages moated city is pronounced. The draw bridge comes up at night, and the only company one can expect beyond is not welcome.
This can all be fobbed off as the vagaries of the developing world, but when one travels to the Zona Colonial in downtown Santo Domingo, visits the remains of the Spanish “discoverers” of this New World outpost, the reality of what history has wrought stands apparent. There are the churches of course, the former prison where the Spanish held their adversaries, and the well preserved home of Diego Colon, son of Cristobal Colon, who we know as Diego and Christopher Columbus. These are the men who paved the way for the spread of capitalism to the New World, with capitalist-slavery, the brutal subjugation of native peoples, and all the other horrible wonders. The Spanish too erected walls, working to enclose the whole Zone behind towering gates. Inside one of these is the Panteón Nacional, a former Jesuit monastery converted into a memorial mausoleum by Rafael Leónidas Trujillo — the man Junot Díaz described as “The dictating-ist dictator who ever dictated.” In the center of the structure hangs a huge copper chandelier, a gift to Trujillo from Spain’s Francisco Franco – from one bloody hand to the other. Such are the standing symbols of those who ruled here – the shadows they cast are long and dark.
Driving north, toward Piedra Blanca, one is overwhelmed by the people walking the streets, some literally slumped up against the narrow abutment of the expressway. Overstuffed trucks with rice, yams, and carrots, crowd the narrow highway. Further along, brightly covered rugs, made of fabric remnants of cast off furniture, are hung by the roadside for sale, along with vendors selling fresh cashews — then in season. One moment you pass by a donkey cart, the next you are passed by three youth riding ubiquitous motorcycles — with mirrors and tire guards pulled off and never any helmets— doing a version of surfing wherein they take their legs off the pedal stands and ride horizontal to the highway weaving in and out of traffic. It is astonishing in its recklessness; what could make these youth so regardless of staying alive?
Heading east to the Punta Cana resort area are the sugar cane fields that line the roads and the impoverished Haitians immigrants working them. One field sees a cart loaded with cane drawn by oxen, as if this were five hundred years ago. Then the beach property begins and again there are the gated enclaves albeit more elaborate; some for golf, some for families, some for sex. Largely the only Dominican and Haitians allowed in are service workers. They work hard, keep a low profile, and return to who knows where — at least for the tourist — when the work is done.
This is a world which Chavez has now departed. Poverty amid abundance. Hunger amid gluttony. Sprawl amid squalor. To the degree Chavez attempted to relieve the suffering of those inhabiting it — and it is the view here that his vision had clear limits — he went against the currency of avaricious capitalist development. For caring about the poor and dispossessed he was in turn loved by them. As for who remains in charge, there is no doubt. It is global capitalism, a truly awful manager.