Name: Mario Lopez
Date: July 27, 2018
Circumstance: Phone call. Mr. Lopez called from his home in San Antonio, Venezuela (near Caracas.) I called from Daphne, Alabama.
Age at Time of Interview: 67
Details: Thinking about my conversation with Mr. Lopez generates mixed emotions. His perspective is certainly a unique and valuable one: a Dominican who existed in the mostly-US space of the residential camps and still today lives in Venezuela. However, much of the discussion was quite scattered. While I am sympathetic to the plight of Mr. Lopez and others living in Venezuela right now, he also puts me in a difficult position at the end of our discussion, asking if I could compensate him for talking to me if we had future conversations. This would, of course, complicate my role in the process. In light of this, I have not been able to continue my discussions with Mr. Lopez.
Trent Kannegieter (TK): Thank you for talking with me.
Mario Lopez (ML): That’s all right. It’s always a pleasure to speak with someone from the States. I always try to keep a close relationship with my American brothers. I call you my brothers because we were educated together. I have so much of the American culture that sometimes I feel like a tourist here.
Well you must already have a pretty good idea of my upbringing and the Creole camps. I’ve been speaking English as far back as I can remember. I speak both languages. If you ask me which one is my native language, it’s a hard question to answer. I teach English, that’s how I keep up with the language. I speak 9-11 hours of English a day.
People preparing for life overseas. You’ve heard about our situation here. So many of us, regretfully, want to leave the country, and, no matter, if the people here plan to go to Ecuador or Peru or Chile, they want to polish up on the language to make sure they get a good job overseas. I keep saying overseas, but to go to Peru or Chile, you don’t need to cross a big body of water. It’s a four or five-day bus ride to Lima, Peru. This is the last wave. I’ve been teaching English for the last 13-14 years. I teach on my own. I’m registered as a service provider; I teach individual one-on-one classes. The first wave that left around ten years ago when Hugo Chavez first began to realize his plans. Those people were the best prepared. They went to the United States, Europe, Australia, the far-out countries with high requirements. The first wave that left; they were the best prepared and with the finances to go along with it. But those that are leaving now, are the remains, they’re younger with less knowledge, less resources, less ability; those are the ones who are leaving today.
The last wave my friend, I don’t know what will be left. The hospitals are empty. The schools are empty. We’re going to a difficult situation. Personally, I have a lot of work, a lot of cashflow, sometimes I do, it’s up and down in this crazy hyperinflation. For the year we have an accumulated inflation of I don’t know, how many thousand percent. It’s hard to keep track. Everything increases in prices day by day. I increase my prices, so I stay up with the day to day.
TK: Is that how you keep up? You inflate your prices daily?
ML: Yes. It’s hard to keep up, but as we talk, I can give you an exact percent. It’s up 3000% for this semester, we’re headed into July, so seven months. I read somewhere that we have an accumulated inflation for the first semester of 2018 of 3000%. Let me check and I’ll give you some exact numbers.
So, how are you? Tell me about you Trent. You’re going to school at Yale?
TK: I’m studying history at Yale right now.
ML: Very impressive, you’re the first person I’ve met who’s studying at Yale. In Boston?
TK: No, in Connecticut, near Boston.
ML: All the Ivy League schools are near Boston?
TK: Yes, sir; somewhat close.
ML: Which semester are you doing?
TK: I’m starting my second year. We start in about a month.
ML: Are you originally from the Connecticut area?
TK: I’m originally from Alabama.
ML: Wow, a Southerner. What are you doing in Connecticut?
TK: I went up to study history, honestly.
ML: But your family is still in Alabama? Mom and Dad?
TK: Yes sir. The whole family is still there. I was born and raised there, 18 years.
ML: We have something in common. I went to college in Virginia at Old Dominion University. First, I went to Cadwater Community College in Virginia Beach as an associate in general studies, and then I went to Old Dominion. I was short about a semester; I didn’t graduate. I fell in love. It’s a love story. I wouldn’t have the time to tell you right now.
I have time to tell you as much as I can. It depends on the objectives of your project. To tell you the short version. I came to Maracaibo where my family is. (My mom has passed away.) When my father discontinued his work with Creole Petroleum, we moved across the lake to Maracaibo, the town. That’s where I did my Venezuelan high school. I came to visit my family twice a year. My family was doing well. My father was doing well with his company; he bought and sold oil field equipment. He was doing well, so he could afford to bring me over every summer and Christmas. I studied for eleven years in Virginia in the tidewater area: Chesapeake, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Newport News.
You may hear a little Southern accent in my English. As a professor, I try to speak with a neutral accent, but, being a Southerner, you might hear it. I feel very relaxed, so you might hear it. When I’m in DC, people ask if I’m a Southerner; I just say “yes, I’m from Norfolk.” Then I might say I’m from way south, I’m from Venezuela. I miss the States. I’ve never been back.
I’ve worked with different companies. The best job I found was as an international transportation assessor. Then I worked for Mitsubishi doing exports and imports; there I was able to go the London, Holland and Mexico twice, but I’ve never been back to the States. I the first years when I came back, I didn’t miss the States. I felt like I’d had my fill of the country. I’m Dominican born. If you asked me now, I’d like to go to the Dominican Republic. I don’t know it; I’ve never been there. Also, you know, sometimes I miss Norfolk and my friends. I lost track of them when I came down here. I’d like to maybe go back someday. I’m divorced. I don’t have any ties to hold me down. Anyways, I’m ok. I don’t have any immediate plans to leave the country unless an opportunity arises, like a job. The first thing I’d like is a job. I’d go anywhere for a job. But I’m ok. I’m in good health. I’m 68 years old. I have a black belt in karate. I play baseball. I walk a lot. I sold my car about four or five years ago. I stay in shape.
Talked about a poor phone connection with friends in Boca Raton, the other day. This is a good connection today.
There’s somethings you need to know before we go further. We are unable to dial any long-distance calls. So, I cannot call you. These communists make sure that communication is blocked and well controlled. They forget we have communication, so I’m convinced that this communist project is going to fail. They didn’t count on technology. That’s where these Cubans are going to fail. I think it can be in a month’s or two months’ time. Underline my words, Trent, this is chaotic. I’m glad I’m here to see everything up close.
So, Trent, what do you have in mind about this project? I understand you need some stories about life in the Creole camps.
TK: I’m personally studying the education within the oil camps. So your experience within the education system there is very interesting. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, I’m collecting oral histories because they don’t really exist, and I think they’re very important so that scholars have access to them in the future. I’m also recording a podcast about the history of U.S. interactions with Venezuela.
ML: I’d be so glad to help you out. Give me an opportunity to organize my thoughts and put it in writing. Not only the Creole experience, but also the Venezuelan/American relationship and history of cooperation. We’ve been such a friendly country; the relationship goes back a few decades. Until these crazy people appeared. The line seems funny. I don’t know if you want to try to connect on Facebook or Skype. I have a current Venezuelan student who’s in Chicago and we connect in Facebook; the connections are quite clear.
*Tells a story about beer drinking on Friday nights in college.*
TK: I’ve been working on this for about a year now. I’ve been working on this project for about 1.5 months. I’m going to the Creole reunion in August.
ML: Are folks cooperating?
TK: Yes, I’ve interviewed a few people already.
ML: The school system only went up to the eighth grade. So when eighth grade arrived, it was very sad to say goodbye to those friends who you might not see again. 95% of those people I’ve never seen again. You can have a good look at how we lived in those camps when you’re at the reunion. I learned to play baseball with my American friends at those camps. As a matter of fact, after I was 11 or 12, someone asked where I learned to play baseball so well, and I said at the American camp. I was a first baseman; my coach was surprised how little he needed to teach me. We played baseball from sun up to sun down (when we could, we had to go to school too.) There was only one bilingual school and we stayed with that. We had classes in English in the morning and when we came back after lunch, we had classes in Spanish. It was two schools in one.
TK: Which subjects did they teach in English and which in Spanish?
ML: Same courses you learned. The teachers were all American teachers who were carefully selected who had been in the top of their classes. They were primarily from the South, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arizona; they were almost all women, only a few men. They were great teachers. They taught us about discipline, scholastic manners, personal manners. They watched how we walked and corrected us. A teacher from Houston was annoyed if we dragged when we walked. I was bilingual, very fluent by seventh grade. They took the English class that the US Air Force pilots took to speak English correctly. (My brother and I were the best at it.) Just sharing some facts, so you know what I’ve been through. That’s the quality of our education in that school system. I went to the Tia Juana staff school. They were all called staff schools, and my father was a staff member, and he worked directly with the American staff. My brother, sister and I attended with the Americans because our father worked there. It was always only five to ten percent Venezuelans. The rest of the school was North American. We spoke Spanish at home, but it was English at school, at the club, at the playground, at the baseball field, at parties. It was all, everything, in English. From the time I was four, I was thrown in a kindergarten room with an American teacher speaking English. There were three or four Venezuelans; that was all. My first attempts at the English language were imitation. I heard what the other kids did, and I did it. The teacher said, “Children take out your green workbook.” I didn’t know what she was saying; I barely understood Spanish. But I watched what the other kids were doing, and I did the same thing. I waited for the little gringitos to react, and then I did the same thing. Turn your book to page 8. I looked over to the girl next to me. She pointed, she knew I didn’t speak English, at the page 8 (ocho) and I did it. We had a Venezuelan teacher in the afternoon.
In Virginia, some people wouldn’t believe I was from South America because I was so fluent. I miss peanut butter, fried chicken, discipline, the law, the tax system… I was a school teacher my last year at Old Dominion. I worked as a substitute teacher. Named high schools.
When I arrived back in 1983, we were beginning to have financial crises in Venezuela. I had an idea about economics and psychology. One summer when I came home the government wanted to eliminate subsidies. We had one of the most stable economies in the world. The government and petroleum companies kept the prices unchanged for twenty years. They controlled inflation by subsidizing everything. The price of a bottle of Coke didn’t change year after year. We discussed how fake our economy was. We had no laws of supply and demand. Rent, gasoline, etc. the prices never changed, and we lived very well. In those years it was impossible to find a Venezuela that would leave Venezuela (accept to go to school).
TK: What year did they cut the subsidies?
ML: About 1985 when the government decided to go into an open economy. Announced it on Friday and implemented it on Monday. Each different sector started setting its prices. After a year, it became clear that it wasn’t going to work because no business person had any experience in a free economy. We were a rookie economy. The new open, normal economy that’s when the problems began. The exchange rate of the Bolivar to the US dollar was 12.4. Today it is 3,400 Bolivares to US$1. (In 1984 it was 4.3.) There’s a page called “Dollar Today” shows the exchange of Bolivars/dollars and euros; it may show yen, ruan and rupee as well. It’s hyper devaluation. I’m really happy that I get $10/hour from my student in Chicago. When she pays me $85, I’m rich; I live really well. Rich in a figurative way. I have many bolivars to buy groceries, to pay for transportation, I have internet and cable tv. I manage to live well. It takes some acrobatics. Sometimes I may run short of an item, say cooking oil. I will go to 3 or 4 groceries to find cooking oil, but at the fourth store I’ll get. You don’t go grocery shopping here. You make your list of four or five items, and then you go to four or five stores until you find them. Items disappear, and when they reappear, they may be triple the price that they were a month ago. You may have to do without butter for a month, and then all the brands of butter appear with a super-inflated price. You have to be patient and learn how to live in this economy.
In 1985 with the open economy, people lost faith in our leaders. When we had our next election, we had been one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. We had been a stable democracy for about forty-five years. Some presidents were re-elected; we were stable, no guerillas, no communism, excellent relations with the North American government (Clinton, Nixon, both Bushes). I went in and out with student and tourist visas; there were never problems. Also, take into account that the United States changed its immigration controls and regulations after 9/11. It’s not like it was when I was a student. It used to be open and friendly toward tourists and students. The Americans used to trust everybody, but now things are different.
We have such a bad reputation because of these monkeys who rule us. We have a horrible reputation. Everyone’s considered a terrorist or a drug dealer. Thank God I have a Dominican passport. If I go to the U.S., I’d use my Dominican passport. If I used my Venezuelan passport, they’d assume I was someone with bad intentions. Thanks to these crazy monkeys we have as our leaders. They have disappeared two billion dollars. Nobody knows where it’s gone. International financiers can use technology to show where the money has gone. The international law enforcement agencies (FBI, CIA, Europol) have a list of 115 looters so far that have tapped the Venezuelan treasury and made international deposits. Government leaders of Venezuela who cannot travel to the US or do business with the US. Asia has been very quiet. China has been very friendly. They have been interested in business; they don’t care about corruption or drug dealing; they are very concerned with their petroleum investments and how to get their profits. They have a strange view of business and international diplomacy. To give you a quick view of Venezuela back then and now. What kind of material do you have?
TK: The interviews I have are concentrated on the educational system. Honestly I’d love to hear about your social life as a Venezuelan who attended these camps? Did you spend most of your time with the students in these camps? Or did you spend time with people in the outside community? What differences did you notice between these two groups?
ML: If I understand you correctly, we spent a great deal of time in the classrooms, in the music classes, practicing for the Christmas show. There was a choir, divided by bass/soprano/tenor. Each class organized a small presentation, a nativity scene, shepherds walking while the choir sang. It was very American while the other class did a Venezuelan scene sung in Spanish. We were always together for birthdays, we drank soda, danced, ate cookies and stayed together until 11 pm. Around 11 or 12 it was time to go home. Everyone walked home. It was so safe it was ridiculous. We said thank you and walked out and walked home. We were 13 or 14 years old. Our parents never worried about us in the middle of the night. There was security in the camps 24 hours a day, driving around the camp at 10 mph. There was no theft. We shared a lot of time. At the camp, we bowled, played volleyball and swam. We would lay out in the sun on the lawn. Always together, Venezuelans and Americans, about 5% and 95% in that order. He then recited the names of his classmates and their parents. (The connection is rougher here. It is difficult to hear some of the details.)
One of ML’s former classmates, Ruth, visited a Maracaibo a few years ago. Mario and his brother, Harry, entertained them. *Small talk here.
He was listing classmates and general social commentary. *
TK: I’m hoping to finish up the majority of the project by September 1st. But I believe I will continue to work on Venezuelan subject matter over the next years.
ML: Can I get paid for participating?
TK: It wouldn’t be officially from Yale. I would call you sometime soon about education.
ML: You want to focus on the educational aspect of the project. You tell me what you want to know. I’m very busy from Mondays through Thursdays because I have skype classes. I live on the outskirts of Carcaras in San Antonio, Venezuela. I take the 5 am bus down from the mountains into Caracas. I start my first class at 6:30 am at the Torre Telefonica. The students/executives are in the conference rooms. I meet with engineers from 6:30-7:30. Fraud department 7:30-8:30 and so on. The days are busy. I take the 1 pm bus back to an internet café where I have more classes.