Plaza Bolivar was one of the first places I visited after arriving in Caracas. A relaxing spot in an otherwise bustling city, with a collectively-run café serving the best hot chocolate imaginable on the corner, means there is not much more you could ask for.
On the pedestrianised road that runs from the nearest Metro station to the Plaza, Ofel greets me with a “Como estas, hermano?” When I ask him the same, his one-word answer never differs; “Pa’lante!” “Onwards!”
This morning, Ofel is serving his customers with sweets and mobile phone calls from the seat of his electric wheelchair, just as he does every day. This is the only way I have known Ofel, working independently, travelling through the city on his own, and so I presume it is also the only way he has ever known. As I learn from our conversation, however, this is far from the truth. When I ask about the benefits of Mision Jose Gregorio Hernandez, created by the government in 2008 to help improve quality of life for Venezuelans with disabilities, Ofel doesn’t have to point far.
“This wheelchair! I’m thirty years old now, and two years ago I got this wheelchair from the mission. Before that, I had never had a wheelchair in my life! I couldn’t work, but now, thanks to the chair, I can.”
The many government missions are always a point of political discussion in Venezuela, and often a point of controversy. Mision Barrio Adentro, for example, sent tens of thousands of Cuban doctors into the poorest areas of the country to provide free medical treatment for the people there, many of whom had never seen a doctor in their lives. This was denounced by the opposition as a campaign of Communist propaganda, and they decried the growing presence of “Cuban militias” in the country. No evidence was provided to back up this claim. The official Venezuelan medical society claimed they were being undermined, somewhat ignoring the fact that the Cuban doctors were working in areas they had always refused to visit.
Nevertheless, the missions have been a hugely positive development for millions of people in Venezuela, and more recently it seems that the opposition have resigned themselves to that fact. A mysterious text message received on my phone earlier this week announced that Capriles had “guaranteed” to keep many of the benefits in place if he was to be elected as President. Ofel, however, seemed far from convinced.
“I hope that Nicolas [Maduro] wins [the upcoming Presidential elections]. Why? Because Capriles only cares about money. If Capriles wins, the benefits for disabled people… out! The missions… out! So yes, I’m going to vote for Maduro.”
I remember passing by just a few days after Hugo Chavez had died. Ofel was decked from head-to-toe in red clothing. Today, I ask him about his thoughts when he heard the news.
“Brother, bad. I couldn’t believe that Chavez was dead. And I still can’t believe. It was the first time that we had a good President.”
“The United States?” Ofel adds. “I don’t want to speak with them.”