Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Welcome/President Obama

Welcome to The Welcome Project. After deciding to throw my proverbial hat into the blogosphere a few weeks ago, I’ve been sitting on this space without any material that I felt was “first post” worthy. Now, November 4, 2008 has now given me the plenty of motivation to get going.

As I woke up to the sun already beaming down on Caracas this morning, I couldn’t help feeling that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and that I was indeed waking up in a new, more hopeful world. Like a movie, the sky was clear of the usual clouds flowing in over the mountains as I made my way down to my bus stop today. In the end, it was easily the clearest day that I have had in the three months I have now been in Venezuela. Indeed, spinning phrases of pride in my country, I have spent a very tired but happy day as a walking cliché. Arriving at CIC today, I was congratulated not only by citizens from the United States, but from people from the United Kingdom, Canada, Venezuela, Colombia, and more than I could hope to remember. For all the articles in the U.S. media stating how there truly was excitement around the globe for Obama’s election, I had the unique opportunity to see it first-hand. Tellingly, the largest newspapers in Caracas had Obama’s face plastered on their front page as well; and, I saw plenty of people eagerly reading the results, and what they might mean for the relations of our two countries.

In their post-election coverage, the New York Times had an article featuring narratives from correspondents around the world on the reaction to the election results. Below is Simon Romero’s poignant recollection of his night in Caracas:


CARACAS, Venezuela | By Simon Romero The sputtering bus inched its way up the streets of Petare, this city’s largest slum, delivering its passengers in front of Vecinito, Enrique Cisneros’s corner store. Salsa blared from loudspeakers perched nearby on the stoops of cinderblock hovels.

“Pull up a seat, we’re celebrating tonight,” said Mr. Cisneros, 37, opening a bottle of Blender’s Pride whiskey. He poured the spirit into plastic cups, mixed in some orange juice, and declared to his guests, “The United States is choosing a black man as its president. Maybe we can share a bit in this happiness.”

His guests Tuesday night included a schoolteacher, a shoe factory worker, an accountant’s assistant, a telephone operator and a couple of foreign journalists. They sipped Mr. Cisneros’s concoction or nursed Polar Ice beers and engaged in Venezuela’s top pastime: political debate.

“This is the first American election I can remember in my lifetime that I was eager to witness,” said Armando Díaz, 24, who works at Movistar, a cellphone company here.

“Before, we’d just switch the channel to baseball,” said Mr. Díaz, gazing at a television announcer on Globovisión and wrapping Venezuelan rapid-fire Spanish around the names of states like Connecticut and Rhode Island. “It’s kind of nice to feel good about the United States again.”

As they do in almost any gathering here in which people examine the toxicity of Venezuelan political life, in this instance through the lens of the election of Barack Obama as president, jokes ensued.

Sitting under a poster of a playful painting by Carlos Cruz-Díez, a kinetic artist, most of those present proudly identified themselves as “pitiyanquis,” or petite yanquis, thus appropriating a vitriolic insult used with increasing frequency by President Hugo Chávez to describe his opponents.

“I wonder if Chávez can stop referring to the United States with such hatred, if only for a few days,” said Lucy Martínez, 44, a teacher at a primary school in Petare. “It would be nice to get a break from that.”

As if on cue, Globovisión shifted its broadcast to focus on a political cartoon from Tuesday’s newspapers here, showing an image of Mr. Chávez and the headline “Anti-Imperial Discourse,” under a smaller photo of Mr. Obama next to the words, “Expiration Date, 11/4.”

In other words, the punching bag that the Bush administration has been for Mr. Chávez may be losing its stuffing.

As night engulfed the streets outside Vecinito, revelers rejoiced. As slums go, this area of Petare, called La Montañita, was not so bad, they claimed. Many of its residents were working class or middle class, struggling to rise in life. They all agreed their most pressing concern was with violent crime.

“Sometimes the police don’t arrive for an entire day to pick up the body after someone is shot dead on the street,” said Yamile Contreras, 30, a telephone operator with hair dyed about a shade lighter than Marilyn Monroe’s. “Is it true New York was once this violent?”

Then they turned the tables on their journalist guests, peppering them with more questions about American oddities like its electoral college. (Is that democratic?) They asked when America’s distant wars would come to an end. They asked whether America was in a recession or a depression.

Bidding farewell after an evening filled with awe over the events unfolding in the United States, those gathered at Vecinito embraced each other and piled their visitors and Mr. Cisneros, the owner of the corner store, into a bandit taxi parked outside.

Ear-splitting salsa blared again from the speakers of the car, an astonishingly large 1982 Chevrolet Malibu without seat belts. “I love American cars,” the taxi driver said as he drove on Petare’s maze of streets, which were still buzzing with pedestrian activity past midnight. Motorcycles whizzed by in the Caribbean night.

“A few hours ago,” said Mr. Cisneros, “the world felt like a different place.”

So, at risk of recalling the lyrics of that horrible country song that they always play at the 4th of July: Today, I am indeed proud to be an American. As I listened to the community of travelers that makes up my school, I agreed with the comments that, as Americans in the recent past, many have felt apprehension when going abroad on how a certain foreign community would react to Americans. I believe that, at least for the foreseeable future, that concern has now disappeared. I am confident that the sole act of electing a President Barack Obama has already improved our immediate standing in the world.

While I know that the hardest work lies ahead, I know that something great has already been accomplished. Thousands of miles away from my home, I saw an enthusiasm and excitement about U.S. politics from the people of a country that many U.S. citizens consider to be an enemy.

Looking back, I can remember a cold December day in Waterloo, Iowa. I sat and watched Barack Obama speak to a crowd in a high school auditorium that probably wasn’t even half full. While there were eager supporters in the mix, it was obvious that candidate who had now already been campaigning in the state for months, still had some work to do if he was to capture what would eventually catapult him through the primary race. Last night, I saw hundreds of thousands of people gather to celebrate a cause that has come to fruition after many months.

With the risk of again sounding too cliché:

We’ve come a long way since then.