Revolutionary tourists

Dan Grech Mar 21, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez continues to nationalize big chunks of that country’s economy. Today his telecommunications minister said the government will take as much as 70 percent of CANTV — that’s Venezuela’s biggest phone company.

Chavez’s policies have raised hackles in official Washington, but a growing number of Americans want a street-level view of 21st century socialism. From the Americas Desk at WLRN, Marketplace’s Dan Grech joined a group of revolutionary tourists.

DAN GRECH: On this trip, a collection of mostly retirees paid 1,400 bucks for a 12-day reality tour of Venezuela. Airfare not included.

They visited a women’s sewing cooperative and a community TV station. Today, they’re headed to a military parade for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

JOJO FARRELL: Let’s stay close, OK? On the bus. Adelante, pues.

Jojo Farrell leads the tour for Global Exchange, a left-leaning nonprofit group based in San Francisco. Chavez has become a magnet for American tourists who want to see his socialist revolution up close.

Eugene and Nora Hammond came from New York City.

EUGENE HAMMOND: So we’re just trying to get an understanding of how deep the feeling is for change here, who opposes it, why. I hope they can develop a big enough leadership from the bottom to sustain the changes that are going on.

The bus jolts to a stop and people pile off.

Gail Ruedi lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

GAIL RUEDI: I actually left corporate America 12 years ago, the very first day I could retire from it. And I’ve been pretty much studying economic justice ever since.

The group heads toward the march.

FARRELL: Let’s stay close, OK?

Within minutes, everyone’s wandered off.

GRECH: Wait, where are they?

JESSICA: Shopping. Chavista memorabilia. Sometimes I think it’s more important than the movement.

Fran Gillmore shows off her find.

FRAN GILLMORE: It says ‘Contra el imperialisma norteamericano, Chavez.’ And it shows Chavez’s face in the Statue of Liberty.

GRECH: What does that mean?

MALE TOURIST: Where’d you get it?

GILLMORE: It’s against American imperialism and shows Chavez is the real beacon of liberty, I guess.

In the 80s, Americans went to Nicaragua to witness the communist revolution of the Sandanistas. Those Burkenstock-wearing, revolutionary tourists earned the nickname Sandalistas.

Now thousands flock to Venezuela as the next left-wing mecca.Global Exchange alone hosted 500 successors to the Sandalistas last year.That’s a five-fold increase from 2005.

[SOUND: Fighter jets flying.]

Back at the parade, helicopters fly by and fighter jets roar overhead.

GILLMORE: Only the gringos are holding their ears.

That’s Fran Gillmore.

GILLMORE: I get a little creeped out by displays of military might, even if it’s for a state that I support.

The parade celebrates the 15-year anniversary of Chavez’s failed military coup.But that coup thrust Chavez into the national imagination, culminating in his election as president in 1998.

[SOUND: Chavez speaking.]

Chavez starts his speech. He’s just 200 feet away.

John Gillmore is from Boston. These days, he and his wife, Fran, live in Costa Rica.

JOHN GILLMORE: People who are really, like, fighting for democracy are seen as leftists or something. When I’ve always been sort of a moderate, a little to the right, and now I’m seen as being way to the left. I haven’t changed anything, though, you know? I have the same beliefs I had in college, just about.

GRECH: And you feel, in a sense, kind of like an exile?

GILLMORE: Voluntary exile, because I feel like my country disappeared.

Chavez wraps up his speech quickly, and the group heads back to the bus.

From Caracas, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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