Tamara brushes her fingers against the strings of her guitar, thoughtfully. I had met her on a trip into Plaza Bolivar, near the Capitolio Metro station in Caracas, where I keep noticing that there are a lot of people using wheelchairs.
‘I don’t know why,’ Tamara replied, ‘but you can see how things have changed. Before, it was much more difficult for disabled people to get around. The Metro was much less expensive, it cost money to get a wheelchair, there was no help. Also, people’s attitudes are changing.’
‘Before’ is a word I keep hearing in Venuzuela. For example, all of the museums and historical sights in the centre of the capital, Caracas, are free to enter, but it wasn’t like that ‘before’. Even one of the parks near Bellas Artes, a beautiful place to walk through, was exclusive ‘before’. The visibility of disabled people in day-to-day life in Caracas is something that I have found especially touching but, again, it wasn’t like that before. ‘It’s because it’s so much easier to get around if you’re in a wheelchair here!’ my younger brother comments.
‘I think it’s really important that you are making these observations, as a person who is coming from outside of Venezuela,’ Tamara continues. ‘Because here, after fourteen years, I think it is easy for us to forget these things. For example, pensions for senior people: there are some who say, yes this is great, but this is my right – it is not from the revolution. OK, you are correct, it is your right, but shall we see where your rights are if the opposition got into power?’
Tamara, like many Venezuelans, has thoughts of the Presidential elections on 14 April on her mind. Voters will need to decide who will replace Hugo Chàvez as president after he died in March 2013. ‘We do feel positive, but it is a completely new step. We need to be alert,’ she tells me.
It is during another trip to Plaza Bolivar when I see Ramon, a blind man, being helped along the street by a member of staff from the local Metro stop. He has accompanied him for quite some distance before stopping and pointing him in the right direction. It was both a surprising and heart-warming sight coming from London, a city where transport staff often believe their task is to hinder rather than help disabled people to travel.
When I approached Ramon to ask him some questions, he wanted to know who I was writing for. Eventually, once he was convinced of my credentials, he concluded: ‘Oh, so you’re with the process!
‘We need to get more disabled people into the government, the National Assembly, the regional governments, so that we are representing ourselves,’ Ramon continued. ‘There are laws defending and promoting our rights, but we should always be striving to ensure that they are properly enforced.’
The deep social changes are described to me as ‘the process’. Governments that came before the election of Hugo Chàvez in 1998 are grouped as ‘the Fourth Republic’. Venezuelans, now living in the Fifth Republic, do not want those days to return.
Solange works in Cacao Venezuela, a hugely popular hot chocolate café sitting on the corner of the Plaza. I wasn’t sure what to expect from our interview but, as with every person I speak to here, she speaks with deep political conviction and well-thought out analysis.
‘I think the hot chocolates are so good simply because of the pure cacao that we use,’ Solange says. ‘I can’t tell you the recipe, because there are other cafés that really want to know. But the problem with the capitalist companies is that they want to make such huge profits and nothing else.
‘We spend more in order to gain more.’