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816 Ice Cream Flavors, a Revolution and a Fortune-Telling Bird

by Benjamin Dangl

4/6/05

Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, is situated in a valley surrounded by shack-covered mountains. Labyrinths of orange brick huts cling to the steep mountainsides. Some are huddled together in crowded patches, others are part of a sprawling network of tin roofs, antennas and tangled electric lines. Whole communities are regularly swept away during the rainy season in flash floods.

For decades, the people in these poor neighborhoods were forgotten by the government. In Venezuela, much like the US, 80% of the country's wealth is generally in the hands of 5% of the population. Now that a new government is in power, this dynamic is changing. In 1998, with broad support from the poorest sectors of society, left-leaning Hugo Chavez was elected president.

Of the various social movements, alternatives economies, cooperatives and uprisings that I have seen in different countries, what is going on now in Venezuela is the most energetic, participative, varied and extensive. People involved in this 'revolution' are working very hard. It is not the same tired solidarity and centralized socialism I saw in Cuba. It has momentum and is fresh and hopeful. In the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas there are programs teaching people how to read and write, offering excellent and free medical services, cheap supermarkets with basic foods, cafeteria's with free food and emergency relief to families whose homes were destroyed in floods. Government programs build houses for people living in slums and redistribute land to landless farmers. Community-run radio and TV stations have sprouted up all over the country and the government is funding countless business cooperatives. But it is not what the government is funding and creating that is impressive. It is the energy of the people within these projects that believe now is the time to put their all into this process. All of this is happening in spite of the right wing opposition's nearly complete control of all media, including radio, TV and newspapers.

The US government does not support this political process and in April 2002 played a key role in overthrowing Chavez. After the military and people of Venezuela forced the right wing insurgency to give up, Chavez was back in power in less than two days. The US government continues to call Venezuela an undemocratic state and says that Chavez is a threat to democracy in the region. Many believe this assertion has less to do with benevolent diplomatic intentions and more to do with the fact that Venezuela is one of the largest suppliers of oil to the US in the world. While Hugo Chavez has been elected nine times in elections and referendums with enormous voter participation, it is debatable whether George W. Bush has even been elected once by the American people.

Colombia and 816 Ice Cream Flavors
On a bus ride to Merida, Venezuela I spoke with Merquith, a Colombian who had left his home five years ago in search of work in Venezuela. "The social conflict in my country is too violent, young people don't have a future there," he explained. In recent months three of his cousins had been murdered. He didn't know if they had been killed by the police or a 'rebel' group. Merquith hadn't seen his family in five years and trying to survive on his own in Venezuela hadn't been easy.

"My family's situation gets worse each year," he explained. "My father must give the military 'vaccines', which are bribes he must pay for them to protect his land. If he doesn't pay them, they will kill him. He has sold almost everything he owns to pay them. My family is almost forced to live in streets. In Colombia life is not valued that highly. People will kill you for a beer." We parted ways after arriving in Merida, where he was hoping to find more work.

Merida is home to the ice cream parlor with the most flavors in the world. The 816 flavors are all made from natural ingredients and include hot dog, trout, rose petals, beer, corn, Viagra and beef. Some of the other more mysterious flavors have names such as British Airways, Reuters, Savage Love and The Tourist. One woman who frequents the ice cream parlor said her favorite flavor was "Te Espero en La Cama" (I Wait for You in Bed).

The owner, whose business is annually in the Guinness Book of World Records, had been running the place for decades. He allowed me to test a variety of flavors for free. After handing me a spoonful of trout ice cream, (with chunks of fish in it) he passed along another flavor. "It is always good to finish off a trout meal with a good Becks Beer!"

On my way back to my hotel I saw a man holding a white cage with a green bird in it. In front of the cage was a small drawer full of pieces of paper with fortunes on them. The man explained that if I paid him 50 cents and made a wish, the bird would come out of the cage and choose the paper fortune corresponding to my wish. I said I was low on money and asked how much longer I would be able to travel. The bird hesitated a few seconds then carefully pulled a fortune from the little drawer: On Tuesday Play 33 in the Lottery...

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org. Click here to read more of his articles.

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano