09 March 2013

In Cambodia, Reactions to Hugo Chavez's Death Vary

Leaders from around the world have paid their condolences to the
family and followers of Hugo Chaves since he dies on Tuesday

Prime Minister Hun Sen offered his condolences to Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez, who died Wednesday morning, in a letter to interim President Nicolas Maduro dated Thursday.

“I am extremely saddened to learn that His Excellency Hugo Chavez, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, passed away on 05 March 2013,” the letter said.

“H.E. Mr. Hugo Chavez will always be remembered as a leader who devoted his life for the well-being and progress of his people.”

Hun Sen bid farewell to his fellow strongman Hugo Chavez last week.

While Mr. Hun Sen and Hugo Chavez never met in an official capacity,  the Venezuelan leader who ruled the country for 14 years shared Mr. Hun Sen’s popular support among the rural poor, combative relationship with critics at home and abroad, vast authority and flair for dramatics.

When Mr. Hun Sen delivered a speech last year on Cambodia’s border issues with Vietnam that lasted for more than 5 hours, international media noted that, although it was Mr. Hun Sen’s longest speech during his time as Prime Minister, it fell far short of Hugo Chavez’s state of the union speech earlier in the year, which lasted for more than 9 hours.

Fellow authoritarian leaders took even greater measures than Mr. Hun Sen in expressing their sadness at Hugo Chavez’s passing. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote in a dramatic letter to Mr. Maduro that "Ch├ívez is alive, as long as justice, love and freedom are living.”

"He is alive, as long as nations are alive and struggle for consolidating independence, justice and kindness. I have no doubt that he will come back, and along with Christ the Savior, the heir to all saintly and perfect men, and will bring peace, justice and perfection for all,” the letter stated.

Hugo Chavez also made a brief appearance in Cambodia’s political scene (or at least on its anti-CPP blog scene) after he won Venezuela’s presidential election in February 2009. Following his victory, opposition leader Sam Rainsy supposedly sent a letter to Hugo Chavez congratulating him on his victory, according to a story on the KI-Media blog.

“On behalf of the Cambodian people whom I represent as an elected Member of Parliament, I would like to warmly congratulate you on the occasion of your personal victory,” the letter said.

“Like you, our Prime Minister wants to stay in power for ever, or at least -- he says -- until he reaches the age of 90,” the letter went on.

In an email on Friday, Sam Rainsy said that he has never sent a letter to Hugo Chavez, who he wrote "was a dictator like Hun Sen."  

And Mr. Chavez was not the first strongman whom Mr. Hun Sen has publicly mourned of late. Following North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death in April 2011, Mr. Hun Sen took part in a ceremony at the North Korean Embassy. On behalf of the government, Mr. Hun Sen offered his condolences to “the brotherly people of North Korea” over the passing of their long-serving leader.

Mr. Hun Sen’s sadness over the passing of Hugo Chavez, however, did not seem to be shared by the small Venezuelan community living in the country.

As the majority of Venezuela’s population of 29 million began their public mourning for their iconic president on Wednesday, a few members of Cambodia’s Venezuelan community gathered for dinner to celebrate the birthday of one of its own over glasses of rum and a passion fruit cake.

“We are 100 percent opposition,” said Antonio Lopez de Haro, 28, the co-owner of Tepui and Gastrobar Botanico, who left his home city of Caracas 12 years ago. “That’s why we are all here. It is a result of Chavez being in power.”

“People in Venezuela take politics very personally and very passionately,” said Gisela Salasar Golding, the chef at Tepui, who moved away from Venezuela 10 years ago. “It’s very personal when they say you don’t belong to the country because you don’t support Chavez.”

Although the three Venezuelans gathered at Tepui last night—there are five in the country in total, they estimated--were in agreement that Hugo Chavez widely failed in his mandate to improve Venezuela, their reasons for leaving were not so much political as pragmatic.

Mr. Lopez de Haro’s father was a private businessman who worked for Pepsi Co., and when Chavez started his campaign of nationalization, the whole family moved out. Ms. Salasar Golding and Daniel Pacheco, whose birthday was being celebrated, left the country to study and see the world with plans to return, but said they watched the country deteriorate from afar and now have no reason to return.

Throughout the evening, the group described a country riddled with crime and lacking in options.

The murder rate in Venezuela is soaring: Last year, according to the government, there were21,692 murders in the country. “And this is the prettiest picture they can paint,” Ms. Salasar Golding said. “My mother doesn’t go out anymore. She teaches, she goes to the market, she goes home.”

A lack of domestic production and 20 percent inflation last year has led to widespread food shortages and the highest consumer prices in years. “People fight over chickens in the supermarket,” said Mr. Lopez de Haro, pulling up a YouTube video on a Macbook laptop next to him at the table. The video showed a bearded Venezuelan man in tattered clothes outrunning a cheetah to catch an antelope.

“Venezuelans have a sense of humor about what’s going on, but it’s really sad,” Ms. Salasar Golding said.  

And unless you are among the 3.5 million Venezuelans working for the government, employment options are scarce, Ms. Salasar Golding said.

Mr. Pacheco, who works on solar energy projects in the country, said he initially planned to go home after completing a degree in engineering at New York’s Bard College, but changed his plans as living conditions in the country went downhill.

“Things just got worse; my friends finished school and couldn’t get a job. Forget about politics, it’s about lifestyle. It’s not the country I lived in,” he said.

“In Cambodia there is still inequality—a big gap—but people on the lower end don’t have this resentment,” said Mr. Lopez de Haro. “But over there its ‘people who have money are oligarchs.’ [Chavez] tells poor people that they need to hate people with money.”

“And not just the rich, also the middle class,” adds Ms. Salasar Golding. “If someone has something and someone else wants it, they take it.”

(Note: A truncated and edited version of this story appeared in the Cambodia Daily's March 9-10, 2013 edition)

02 March 2012

Rural Knot Tying: A Teaser

Here are a few photos to wet your appetite for a Khmer wedding super blog that will be delivered within 2-4 business days (i havent uploaded the bulk of the photos yet). As my girl firend's father passed away last year, her sister needed a male figure to fill the paternal role in the ceremonies. Guess who it was...

And one note, i was not swimming across irrigation canals or doing drugs backstage with the late John Belushi during the nuptuals, it was just sweat-your-balls-off hot in lovely, scantily air-conditioned Pursat.

Gettin' sweaty with the patriarch of the groom's faction.

The bride (tiara) with one of her dearest friends, Sole.

Heat-ravaged hairdos and Leang ravaging an apple.

Ahhh, so sweet.