816 Ice Cream Flavors, a Revolution
and a Fortune-Telling Bird
by Benjamin Dangl
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
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
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.
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