Caracas, January 1958
The Venezuelan president Pérez Jiménez has fled the country overnight in the lumbering propeller plane “The Sacred Cow”. Caraqueños awaken to the chaos of freedom.
Mom lay listening to the looters shuffle by, wondering how she had ended up in a South American revolution 3,000 miles from home. None of it made any sense. By rights, she should be waking up in Winona, ready for a day managing the family store and planning a tuna hot-dish dinner. Instead, she was a Foreign Service wife managing a household with a maid who’d made Spanish her children’s first language while their mother cut up tea sandwiches at the Ambassador’s home. Her head spun.
As Dad lay on the other side of the bed, the excitement of what was taking place made him almost twitch. Being in the middle of a country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy was exactly where he wanted to be.
He’d hit the ground running on his first day at work three years earlier: the Ambassador’s annual Fourth of July party was a command performance for all Embassy staff. Dad had informally met his Embassy colleagues, both those with USIS and those with economic, political and military portfolios. President Marcos Perez Jimenez was the latest in a series of military dictators who ruled the oil-rich country. The regime’s anti-communist agenda had won PJ the tacit support of Washington, and his second-in-command, Pedro Estrada, kept a lid on dissent with his Seguridad Nacional secret police. American oil companies were growing rich and the American expatriate community numbered over 20,000.
As the Embassy’s Press Attaché, Dad had developed personal relationships with journalists, professors and students for three years, maintaining an active presence in the Caracas newspapers and television programming with pro-American articles and programs. Journalists, along with university professors and students, had been involved in clandestine work against the military dictatorship for months. The Embassy was officially hands-off, not taking a public stand against repression, but the underground leadership looked to the American democratic experience for guidance. With PJ’s overthrow, the revolution had succeeded, and Dad would soon be able to celebrate with his contacts who knew where his personal sympathies lay.
The pitter-patter of little feet told my parents that I was up first, as usual, and had gone in search of Fina; Susie would sleep in for another hour. Slips of quiet Spanish made their way from the maid’s room beyond the kitchen. It was Mom’s cue to get moving: she’d have coffee ready and cereal out by the time Fina and I came into the kitchen, the maid in one of the flowered dresses Mom had insisted she wear instead of the head-to-toe black outfit she’d worn when they’d met. Although Fina was only a few years older than my parents, she’d already experienced the loss of family and friends in the Spanish Civil War, and she wore the traditional dark mourning clothes of an old lady. Mom would have none of it: her girls needed a happy environment, and freeing Fina from luto had allowed her to become a powerfully positive influence on us little girls.
Mom hadn’t realized quite how much our whole family had connected with Fina, and with Caracas, until we spent a month back in Minnesota the previous summer. It was what the Department of State called Home Leave: a required visit to the United States hometown every few years to reconnect Foreign Service officers and their families with America. We cycled through the obligatory gatherings of family and friends in Winona and the Twin Cities, greeted like foreign dignitaries. As good as it was to see family, Mom and Dad realized how much they, and their view of the world, had changed. After the initial thrall, the family’s attention span was reliably short. In truth, people did not really have much interest in hearing about some far off place that meant little to them.
Divorced from old home connections, we headed home to Caracas. Home, to our too small, ground-floor apartment where street noises and the occasional flying cockroach came in through the open window vents. Home to a waiting Spanish-speaking Josefina, whose “Ay, mi amor!” as she scooped up her babies was matched by immediate joyful cries of recognition. Home again, in a foreign land. It was a funny feeling.
Mom was putting the coffee water on when the phone rang. Dad pulled on his bathrobe as he walked to the living room. He picked up the phone. “Hello.” He nodded. “Yes, all fine here.”
Mom craned her head, trying to pick up the conversation.
“OK, roger that,” Dad said. He hung up and walked into the kitchen. “Well, looks like we’ll make it.” He smiled and patted Mom’s shoulder.
“That’s good,” she said, waiting for more. She poured Dad a cup of coffee.
“Buenos días, Mommy!” I danced into the kitchen, Fina’s pilot fish.
Mom scooped me up. “Good morning to you.” She gave me a faceful of squeeze and deposited me onto my regular chair at the little kitchen table. “Fina.” Mom nodded with what she hoped was confidence. There was no need getting everyone going again, least of all the kids.
Fina finished tying on her apron. “Señora,” Fina said. “Yo me ocupo.” I’ll take it from here. She smiled, holding her lips tight over her bad teeth. She found a saucer to go with Dad’s coffee cup and handed it to him and then turned to me. “Geni, Corne Flex?” The Kellogg’s cereal was a staple in our house. She poured me a bowl.
Mom followed Dad back to the living room, balancing her cup and saucer like the dancer she had been before getting married. She sat on the edge of the pheasant-print sofa. Dad sat by the telephone, his coffee balanced on a knee. “Well, things are settling down but the communists are emerging. The Boy Scouts, in fact.”
“But that’s an American organization, isn’t it?” Mom said.
“International, but this region is headquartered in good ol’ Havana. So these commie-trained kids have seen an opportunity to be helpful, and, damn it if they aren’t doing just that.”
“Well, the craziness of last night could hardly continue,” Mom said, sitting back on the pheasant-print sofa.
“It’s been months brewing, Nan, so, no, it’s still crazy. Probably’ll get more so as these Caraqueños realize the shackles are off. Best we stay off the street for a while longer.”
And so our little family stayed indoors the rest of the day. While Dad kept the telephone tree information flowing through the Embassy, Mom worked up a batch of lemon bars and Fina oversaw Susie and me playing in the aluminum washtub next to the cement laundry sink behind the kitchen, keeping an eye out for the rat that lived in the drain. A poison-laced banana had kept the varmint away during my grandparents’ visit. The day limped along for the adults while Susie and I chatted away in Spanish, had lunch, played some more, had dinner. After our baths, Susie and I cozied into our hooded towels while Mom read us a bedtime story. h
Meanwhile, enraged mobs surrounded the headquarters of the dreaded Seguridad Nacional. The National Guard, initially supposed to control the crowd, fired on the fortress instead when the trapped secret police began shooting at the crowd. When the police were smoked out, hundreds of political prisoners, some barely able to walk, emerged into the arms of their families and friends. A junta of military and civilians from the underground movement emerged in control, but mobs continued battling throughout the city for the next three days, causing the death of hundreds, and thousands more were wounded. Looting slowly ebbed.
A fragile democracy took shape. The secret police were no more. Venezuelan citizens had liberty for the first time since 1810. And, for the first time in a decade, Venezuelans could read uncensored newspapers.
Clandestine revolutionaries were now in positions of leadership in the government, the media and the business community. The new political scheme gave Dad’s job new meaning. He had made many good friends among the local press and radio people in producing the television program he’d created for USIS, Venezuela Mira a Su Futuro, and now he could enjoy the new freedom of tapping into a diverse pool of journalists. The programming at the bi-national Centro Cultural expanded as well, drawing in larger and more relaxed audiences. The Embassy’s lending library saw books flying off the shelf.
Dad had also been taken into the confidences of a number of very prominent people who were upset about their country’s conditions and wanted an understanding ear. A few days into the new Venezuela, Mom and Dad were invited to a small dinner party at the home of a newspaper editor just returned from forced exile to Bolivia. The other men at the party had been jailed by the secret police, one for six years. They asked Dad how the American government could support a suppressive government while preaching democracy. Dad’s personal feelings must have bled a little into the official answer — the Embassy practiced a policy of non-intervention — and his reputation was such that his questioners averred their friendship with him and the people of the United States.
Dad and Mom’s cross-cultural communication responsibilities grew richer as the new democracy settled into the business of governing. USIA beefed up the cultural envoy trips: Nat King Cole, fresh from the Tropicana in Havana; Aaron Copeland; Louis Armstrong; Woody Herman. Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic flew down for a May 1 concert at Central University, where they played the Venezuelan national anthem with appropriate emotion in counterpoint to the May Day labor union march downtown. Dad got a kick out of watching Lennie work his renowned charm at a press conference, with Dad doing the interpreting. The headlines in the local newspapers the next day spoke of “international understanding.”
Mom and Dad resumed evening hours’ “representation” at cocktail parties, dinners and other social obligations. Embassy staff to continued their comradely entertainment habits. I went back to preschool at Kinder Mickey. My mother resumed her visits to the Military Club swimming pool with Susie and me, holding me up by the back of my suit as Susie played on the shallower steps.
The eternal springtime of Caracas worked its magic. All was well again.