January 26, 2007

Toward A Socialist Paradise: Venezuela Governor To Seize Airport

After eight years of Hugo Chávez, kidnappers and thieves prowl
Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar International Airport: I learned about that the hard way. Expect more of the same as the state expropriates a nearby privately owned airport (Photo: Simon Bolivar terminal)

See Thomas Lifson's comments on this article at The American Thinker.

By David Paulin

For years, airline passengers disembarking at Venezuela’s main airport faced an unsettling experience: Simon Bolivar International Airport is a model of inefficiency. It's what you could expect from most state-owned and Venezuelan managed enterprises. Passengers going to the taxi stand might get picked up by a pirate taxi – the driver having bribed or snuck his way past apathetic security personnel. Many travelers paid several times the going rate for the 30-minute trip to Caracas. Today, after eight years of Hugo Chávez’s “revolutionary” government, the airport is more disorganized than ever. And it’s dangerous. Four years ago, I found out just how dangerous.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s the latest news from Venezuela’s emerging socialist paradise: A state governor allied with President Chávez has ordered the expropriation of a private airport in Charallave on the outskirts of Caracas. The reason, according to Miranda Gov. Diosdado Cabello, is to “substantially improve the use of the airport” by siphoning off air traffic from Simon Bolivar airport in nearby Maiquetia.

Some 500 shareholders were surprised by the announcement, airport manager Henry Vazquez told the Associated Press. And no wonder: The airport already was controlled by government officials and soldiers. Obviously, there are really only two reasons for the take-over: Power and control. Socialism has nothing to do with it.

The move comes as Chávez has vowed to nationalize “strategic sectors” – including private firms in which U.S. companies have stakes in telecommunications, electricity, and the oil industry.

The take-over announcement comes days after a remarkable news conference in Caracas given by Luis Miquilena, 87, who guided Chávez to his first landslide election win. A long-time leftist, Miquilena left Chávez’s cabinet five years ago, and at the news conference he savaged El Presidente. Miquilena thus joined a long list of former Chávez allies who parted company with the autocratic populist after seeing what he was all about. A similar pattern occurred in Cuba as Chávez mentor Fidel Castro showed his true colors, following his democratic “revolution” some 50 years ago.

"This is a government with a hypocritical authoritarianism that tries to sell the world certain democratic appearances," Miquilena said at a daily newspaper, El Nacional, which has been critical of Chávez’s government. "The government is not abiding by any rule. It has all the characteristics of a dictatorial government."

As Miquilena nears the end of his life, it is ironic and sad that he must now bear witness to Venezuela’s slide into what has all the appearances of a dictatorship, albeit for its democratic trappings. He had held his tongue until now. As a young man, Miquilena saw Venezuela emerge from the dictatorship of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez into a democracy. By some accounts, he was tortured by that dictator’s secret police.

Miquilena’s comments came days before Chávez was expected to be ruling by “decree.” And once that happens, don’t expect the nation’s airports to hum with efficiency.


Four years ago, I learned just how bad things had gotten at Simon Bolivar International Airport when I disembarked from a KLM flight from Amsterdam. Having been through the airport many times before, when living in Venezuela, I figured I could differentiate between the good guys and bad guys.

I was wrong.

Getting into a taxi, my driver tossed my bag into the back seat, and I slide in right next to it. Suddenly, two other guys opened the doors on either side and got in. I heard the snap of automatic door locks.

Immediately, I knew what was happening. Frantically, I pulled at the door knobs.

“Calm down, calm down,” said the small wiry man who had pretended to be a taxi driver – right down to the official badge.

Helplessly, I looked out the window as we slowly drove off: The gringo traveler and his three Venezuelan companions in a taxi. Thirty feet away, two apathetic National Guardsmen were engaged in small talk.

The guy in the right-font seat opened the glove compartment. I heard the sickening sound of a semi-automatic being cocked. I knew enough about this sort of thing to know that your chances of survival go down significantly once you’re kidnapped.

I was calm, yet seized with dread. I wondered if the last thing I’d ever see was the guy in the right-front seat turning around and firing a bullet into my chest. The three of them were in their 40s and 50s and looked quite ordinary.

One flipped through my U.S. passport and, seeing a residency stamp for Jamaica, somehow confused me for a Canadian. Maybe it was my lucky day.

Jamaica is a sovereign country, right?” one said.

“Yes, I have a wife and two kids there,” I replied. It was a lie, calculated to make me seem more human to them. They looked like family men.

They were disappointed I didn’t have more cash – so I overstated the value of the Jamaican dollars I was carrying. That made them happy.

“We’re poor. That’s why we’re doing this,” one of them said. He professed solidarity with Hugo Chávez.

Thirty minutes later, they let me out in a working-class section of Caracas. They'd picked me clean, taking a few hundred dollars, a camera, and a cell phone. They gave me cab fare to get to my destination.

Later, I spoke over the phone with a security officer at the U.S. Embassy.

“I used to live here," I said. "So can I assume it's like it was a few years ago; that it would be a waste of time to report this to the police?”

“Yes, you can assume that.”

He added, “This has been happening a lot. I shouldn’t say this, but a few days ago I got an irate call from the head of security for one of the U.S. airlines flying here.

“One of their captains was kidnapped. It happened exactly like you described.”

KLM, for its part, was wise to this. My flight’s steward told me that KLM no longer let its crews stay overnight in Venezuela: too dangerous. They flew the plane to Curacao and then returned the next day for passengers.

Violent crime has soared in Venezuela after eight years of Chávez. Typically, the sorts of folks who cheer on Chávez are the types who claim that poverty and crime are related. In other words, when poverty goes down, so does crime.

Yet Chávez claims to have reduced poverty – and still crime is soaring. The more likely factors that explain the crime explosion are the same ones found at the international airport – epic levels of inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement. Travelers heading to Venezuela would be well-advised to look at the State Department's hair-raising report on security there.

Regarding the main airport, here’s an excerpt:

Maiquetia Airport, the international airport serving Caracas, is dangerous and corruption is rampant. Concerns include personal property theft, muggings, and “express kidnappings” in which individuals are taken to make purchases or to withdraw as much money as possible from ATMs, often at gunpoint. The Embassy has received multiple, credible reports that individuals with what appear to be official uniforms or other credentials are involved in facilitating or perpetrating these crimes.”

Once Chávez’s goons get their hands on the Charallave airport, you can expect more of the same: That’s how authoritarian socialism works.

January 10, 2007

Telephones for the Classes – Socialism for the Masses

Need to phone Venezuela? Forget about it if Hugo Gets His Way

(A magazine article based on this post, "Chavez's New Statism" may be found at FrontPage Magazine. Click here -- DP.) 

By David Paulin

President Hugo Chavez has announced his intention to pursue an authoritarian socialist model for Venezuela, and to nationalize key companies. Predictably, the nation’s stock market and currency has gone into a nasty tail spin.

"We're heading toward socialism, and nothing and no one can prevent it,” Chavez declared on Monday, in a national television address. Today he will be sworn into a third term that runs until 2013.

Chavez's embrace of socialism should surprise nobody who has been paying attention to what he's been saying. He was announcing his radical intentions, loud and clear, as early as 1999 when he took office. Specifically, Chavez vowed on Monday to nationalize Venezuela’s telecommunications company, unspecified electrical firms, and to reduce the Central Bank’s autonomy. Among other things, he also called for additional powers for himself so that he could rule by decree.
In respect to the nationalizations, the biggest prize would be Venezuela’s publicly traded telecommunications company, Compania Anonima Nacional Telefones De Venezuela (known by the Spanish acronym CANTV, pronounced "Can-Tee-V”). “Let it be nationalized," he said. "The nation should recover its property of strategic sectors.”

Before 1991, to be sure, CANTV was a state-owned and managed phone company. It also was an international basket case: People calling across town had trouble getting a dial tone – much less a connection. Calling other cities was virtually impossible.

I lived in Caracas during these years, working as a Caracas-based foreign correspondent for several American daily newspapers. The story of what CANTV was – and what it became in the hands of can-do American managers – is a remarkable one. It’s also testimony to the power of markets to transform an economy – in terms of providing investment, transparency, and accountability.

Inept Management

Poorly managed as a state-owned company, CANTV was rife with do-nothing political patronage jobs and corrupt unions that got what they wanted. In short, it was what you’d expect in a nation with a statist economy that, according to corruption-watchdog Transparency International, was among the world’s most corrupt.
Venezuela had a population of about 20 million people at the time – yet only 1.6 million of them had telephones. It wasn’t for lack of money. Rather, the money-losing state phone company took years to hook up phone lines – unless you had political connections, bribed the right officials or purchased a stolen line. The state phone company, according to some accounts, took out advertisements asking its customers not to use the phones too much.

Like many Third World countries, Venezuela realized it needed a modern telecommunications system to develop its oil-producing economy. After a highly politicized congressional debate, it privatized CANTV. A GTE Corp.-led consortium won a bidding process and acquired 40 percent of CANTV for $1.9 billion. The government retained 49 percent, and workers kept the remaining 11 percent. (Dallas-based GTE Corp. merged in March 2000 with Bell Atlantic to form Verizon Communications.)

Consider some of what the privatized CANTV accomplished: From 1992 to 1994, it invested more than $1.1 billion to upgrade and expand Venezuela's phone system – more than was spent during the 20 years preceding privatization.

Led by American managers, CANTV's 22,000 employees installed more than 863,000 phone lines by 1994 – 4 1/2 times as many as were installed during the two years preceding privatization.

More than 460,000 customers were added, three times more than CANTV connected during the two years before privatization.

Bottom line: By 1994, callers almost always got a dial tone. And they usually got a connection.

“The telecommunications system here was very poorly designed and maintained, with 40-to 50-year-old technology,” CANTV's 40-year-old president Bruce Haddad, a 19-year GTE veteran, told me during an interview in July, 1994.

Haddad had his share of problems. He was spoofed on a Venezuela comedy program, had annual reports tossed at him during an annual meeting, and was called a “gringo” and “foreigner.”

At one point, an arrest warrant that seemed politically motivated was issued against him. He was charged with complicity in a natural gas pipeline explosion, caused by a CANTV sub-contractor, which incinerated more than 50 motorists on a major highway. After lying low for a while, Haddad eventually turned himself in and was exonerated.

He and fellow GTE Corp. managers kept the company moving ahead through two bloody coup attempts (one led by Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez); draconian currency exchange controls, a 100 percent currency devaluation, 70 percent interest rates, and annual inflation of up to 100 percent.
Haddad and fellow GTE Corp. senior executive Douglas Mullen shocked Venezuelan workers by mingling freely with them at functions designed to build esprit de corps – something most status-conscious Venezuelan managers would never do.

It will be interesting to see how CANTV fares once it’s controlled again by Venezuelan managers: state employees of a government that, by all accounts, is involved in record levels of corruption.

Haddad, incidentally, never made it back to the states to settle down with his wife, Dorothy. They died when their corporate jet smashed into the side of a volcano near Guatemala City, Guatemala at 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 19, 1997. They were racing the clock to get to Dallas, where the couple was supposed to catch an airliner to China. Haddad was going there as part of his new position, senior vice president of international operations. Both were 43 years old. They had been high school sweethearts.

Author’s note: This was derived in part from articles I wrote for The Dallas Morning News while based in Caracas. For additional analysis, visit The American Thinker and The Devil's Excrement.

Also see these earlier posts:

January 8, 2007


Visitors to a Texas Library Learn about Admirable ‘Traditional Values’ of Marriage and Community...IN AFRICA!

...An occasional report from the “People’s Republic of Austin” (Photo of Elizabeth Kahura)

UPDATE: See Thomas Lifson's comments on this article at The American Thinker.

By David Paulin

Ann Coulter delivered a speech in hip and liberal Austin, Texas last year and nearly provoked a riot. The catcalls and boos that left-wing University of Texas students hurled at her hit a pitch when one student posed a vulgar question, intended to attack the conservative columnist's concepts of marriage and traditional values.

“Let him go” chanted supportive students at LBJ Library Auditorium, after nearby campus police quickly arrested the 19-year-old man.

Curiously, no such protests erupted during an event on traditional values a little over one week ago at a city library. Why? Perhaps it’s because the values being discussed were not American – conservative or otherwise.

No, this event focused on traditional African values – or as a library news release explained: the “traditional African values of family, community, responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement.” That, at least, is the virtuous picture of Africa that Elizabeth Kahura, a native of Kenya and professional “storyteller,” would have you believe. She spoke during an event associated with Kwanzaa week – the controversial African-American holiday which ended a little over one week ago.

In one sense, Kahura is the perfect cheerleader for the Africa-oriented Kwanzaa, which is taken very seriously in Austin.

Sixteen years after arriving in America, Kahura makes a career out of idealizing her native Africa – all while keeping both feet firmly planted in multicultural America. Her mission is to “enlighten the world on the true meaning of Africa,” as one Austin Public Library news release puts it.

Kahura, who settled in Texas, has spent ten-plus years playing up Africa’s virtues. At libraries, schools, and day care centers, she utilizes colorful presentations to show off African clothing, music, and dance. She was a big hit last year among grade-school kids in nearby Bastrop: They got to “dress up like an African King and Queen to demonstrate African Village life.”

In Austin, Kwanzaa gets plenty of serious coverage from the politically correct daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman. No matter that conservatives of all colors have long derided Kwanzaa as racial hucksterism with Marxist and racially charged overtones.

Nearly 40 years ago, Kwanzaa was dreamed up in California by Ronald Everett, an African-American who was an adherent of various black extremist groups and causes. In the early 70s, he served jail time for the false imprisonment and torture of two women who had been his followers. Completing his sentence, he reinvented himself. Today he’s Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of black studies at California State University in Long Beach.

Over the years, Kwanzaa has been variously described as an African-American alternative to Christmas or a focal point for African-American pride and community. According to one survey, however, it's celebrated by a mere 1.6 percent of Americans – or 13 percent of African-Americans.

At Kwanzaa events you see few if any white faces, yet Kahura insists, “Kwanzaa is not just an African-American concept. It can help anyone."

She went on, “It’s about teamwork, unity, and people walking together. It celebrates culture and it can link African-Americans to their roots and their mother language.”

Oh really? Kahura obviously needs to learn more about her adopted country: American culture has always embraced the civic-engagement aspects she touts. Indeed, America’s remarkable levels of civic-engagement were highlighted in Alexis De Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” his seminal volume first published in 1835.

To be sure, a debate is underway about the status and possible decline of America’s levels of civic-engagement. Some experts say it remains healthy. Whatever the case, it’s doubtful Kwanzaa has contributed anything to America’s virtue of civic-engagement, as the holiday has morphed from its racist and militant origins into mainstream respectability. Today it’s utterly beyond criticism or probing questions by the mainstream media.

Multiculturalism Gone Berserk

How did this happen? Obviously, Kwanzaa’s ideologues rode the wave of multicultural and politically correct ideology that eventually infected the mainstream media. As a result, questions that ought to be asked are stifled. One example was a recent Kwanzaa puff piece from Cox News Service, owners of the American-Statesman, whose headline trumpeted: “Kwanzaa glows even brighter after 40 years.”

Completely missing was any mention of Dr. Maulana Karenga’s sleazy past; not a word about his criminal record and extremist associations, observed the NewsBusters blog. A provocative headline accompanied its incisive comments: “Cox News Honors Kwanzaa Creator, A Rapist and Torturer.”

As to Kahura, nobody has dared to publicly ask an obvious question about her: How can a Kenyan immigrant be so presumptuous as to settle in America and then make a veritable career out of lecturing Americans about traditional African values?

Let’s face it. The values she admires are mostly a product of her imagination. One reason Africa is a basket case, after all, is precisely because of its values.

Indeed, the idealized Africa Kahura extols would be unrecognizable even to the high-minded readers of America’s most liberal newspaper, The New York Times. Consider a Times article from May, 2005: “AIDS Now Compels Africa to Challenge Widows’ ‘Cleansing’.”

It focused on a bizarre yet common practice in rural areas of Zambia and Kenya and “a number of nearby nations.” After a husband’s funeral, a ritual takes place: “sex between the widow and one of her husband's relatives.”

Its purpose is “to break the bond” with the husband’s spirit, according to The Times. “Widows have long tolerated it, and traditional leaders have endorsed it, as an unchallenged tradition of rural African life."

Did the school kids whom Kahura dressed up as African kings and queens learn anything about this? I have yet to attend one of Kahura’s lectures, to be sure, having only had the pleasure of reading about them and seeing her on television. Even so, I doubt she’s ever waxed poetic about the joys of sex with bereaved widows – whether they want it or not.

Kahura caught my attention two years ago, not long after I moved to Austin. Reading a news item about one of her upcoming presentations, I was dumbfounded by what seemed to be a case of multiculturalism gone berserk. I dashed off a protest letter to the America-Statesman: It wasn’t published.

I complained to my public library which was hosting her presentation. A library official responded that Kahura was a well-respected “educator” and much in demand for events such as Kwanzaa, Black History Month, or for various educational purposes.

Conservatives, incidentally, have an epithet for this town: “People’s Republic of Austin.”

Child Sexual Abuse

Presumably, Kahura’s presentations about her idealized Africa also skip over the pesky issue of child sexual abuse in Africa. The problem is persistent in Kahura’s native Kenya – not to mention in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, and Sierra Leone, according to an article in The New York Times last December, "Sex Abuse of Girls Is Stubborn Scourge in Africa." Dr. Rachel Jewkes, a specialist on sexual violence with South Africa’s Medical Research Council, was quoted as saying: “The prevalence of child rape in South Africa goes from really, really high to astronomically high.”

Some traditional values, huh?

Presumably, Kahura also skipped over another traditional African value: promiscuous sex. Once again, the venerable New York Times dealt with this in an article, “AIDS in Africa: Experts Study Role of Promiscuous Sex in the Epidemic." It was published way back in 1990, about the time Kahura first left her idyllic Kenya and came to America.

That article, believe it or not, actually stated that sexually promiscuous behavior may have something to do with Africa’s legacy of colonialism!

Presumably, Kahura’s lectures also have overlooked another ritual based on traditional African values – “female circumcisions.” Last June, The New York Times dealt with this in a delicately titled article, "Genital Cutting Raises by 50% Likelihood Mothers or Their Newborns Will Die, Study Finds.”

It stated, “In a number of African cultures, genital mutilation is part of a coming-of-age ceremony, and defenders have contended that it is a cultural practice, like male circumcision among Jews, with few, if any, proven long-term health consequences.”

Incidentally, the term “genital cutting” is the euphemism preferred by multicultural types who consider the more graphic “female circumcision" (the removal of the clitoris) to be too negative and judgmental of cultures that practice this procedure.

Modern-day Slavery

Some African-Americans and Kwanzaa diehards may idealize Africa – and Kahura may cater to their fantasies. However, they can count their blessings for having grown up in America, not Africa. Consider the plight of many African children – the subject of a New York Times article last October, "Africa’s World of Forced Labor, in a 6-Year-Old’s Eye."

African children sold into indentured servitude work up to 14 hours per day and “are part of a vast traffic in children that supports West and Central African fisheries, quarries, cocoa and rice plantations and street markets,” reported The Times.

“The girls are domestic servants, bread bakers, prostitutes. The boys are field workers, cart pushers, scavengers in abandoned gem and gold mines.”

Not very idyllic, huh?

Here’s a suggestion. The next time Kahura delivers a lecture on traditional African values, maybe the school or library or daycare center that’s hosting her can provide some counter-balance: Get a patriotic professor from the University of Texas to give a talk on American and Western values – with the aim of illustrating how those values have made us who we are.

Yeah, I know. In my dreams.

From the author:
….Readers that got this far may be interested in an Op-Ed piece I wrote in July, 2005 regarding the uproar over Mexico’s allegedly racist postage stamps. The piece, “All the Colors of the Rainbow,” ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

All the Colors of the Rainbow

Mexico’s ‘Racist' Stamp

By David Paulin

Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and White House spokesperson Scott McClellan all agree that a Mexican postal stamp plays upon racist stereotypes. Their unqualified agreement – from across our racial and political divide – is probably shared by most Americans. Our condemnation, though, may say a lot more about our culture than about Mexico's alleged racial insensitivity.

Don't get me wrong. I’m also put off by the stamp of a beloved Mexican comic-book character that, to me, also resembles a racist Jim Crow-era caricature: a goofy black male with exaggerated features such as thick lips. But Mexicans like the stamp, and President Vicente Fox has defended it.

So are Mexicans lining up to buy the stamp racists? I have my doubts, in part because I recall all too well how complicated racial politics can be in other countries, including in Venezuela and Jamaica where I have lived and worked.

Like in much of Latin America, for instance, Venezuela’s racial politics is complicated by the fact that it’s hard to tell just who is black -- and who isn’t. The reason is that 80 percent of Venezuelans are mixed race or mestizo. You find all sorts of gradations of colors and facial features. I first realized I was out of the loop when I asked a white upper-class Venezuelan friend why his country lacked any prominent black politicians.

“What about Claudio Fermin?” he asked with incredulity, referring to the dark-complexioned politician in the Democratic Action party.

"He's black?"

"He's as black as can be," he assured me.

He was right, of course. No doubt if I'd met Claudio Fermin on a street in Detroit or Atlanta, I would have figured that, yes, he was black. But in Venezuela, racial distinctions seemed harder to make.

It was an epiphany

How an American like me perceived somebody abroad, in terms of their race, often had more to do with culture and class than with skin color or features. It also had a lot to do with how people perceived and defined themselves.

Not all Venezuelans, to be sure, felt the same way. My Venezuelan girlfriend and I once visited one of the country’s venerable fortune tellers, called brujas. We were so impressed with Fanny – she provided correct numbers for a 4-digit Florida lotto, among other things – that my girlfriend referred a friend to her.

Fanny wasn't pleased.

"Why are you sending blacks to my house? I don't deal with that kind of clientele!"

I was shocked. I hadn't given it much thought until then. But Fanny was black. At least that's how she struck my girlfriend and me (who I guess, incidentally, would qualify as mestizo).

Perhaps Fanny was perhaps using one criterion that some in Venezuela used to determine race: kinky hair.

In overwhelmingly black Jamaica, racial politics and classifications were a lot more complicated. One strange thing I quickly realized: After a few days, I didn't regard Jamaicans I met as being "black.” The reason is that most ordinary Jamaicans, unlike many black Americans, didn’t define themselves by their skin color. Instead, they regarded themselves as Jamaicans – no matter what country they were in. It’s an attitude that upsets some black Americans.

For Jamaicans, however, that attitude affects how they perceive themselves – and how others perceive them. One Jamaican friend related how he was visiting Miami and was in a car with several white friends and acquaintances. Somebody blurted “nigger” in a casual conversation. An embarrassing silence ensued for a few seconds – for my Jamaican friend is black – until somebody in the group quickly clarified: "Of course, we're not talking about you. You’re a Jamaican!”

“It was like water rolling off a duck,” recalled my friend.

Interestingly, such an easy going attitude seemed common among Jamaicans, except for members of the left-leaning elite: newspaper columnists, university professors, and politicians. Many of them viewed the world through a racial prism – an obsession that gives them a lot in common with many black Americans, and with many left-leaning whites.

Ordinary Jamaicans, to be sure, also could be extraordinarily complicated about race.

"P-F-W” was one expression they applied to light-complexioned and upper class Jamaicans who, they complained, tried to “Pass for White.” They joked about whether those P-F-Ws could pass for white in America.

My Jamaican girlfriend, who looked something like the beautiful actress Angela Bassett, once referred to a fellow employee as “the woman with very African features.” I was a bit surprised, for my girlfriend had some African features of her own: sensuous lips that were far more beautiful than what any thin-lipped white women could get from a plastic surgeon. I never learned at what point sensuous lips morph into “African” lips, although it was one of many instances I encountered of blacks making seemingly harmless distinctions or judgments among themselves, based on racial features.

Interestingly, my girlfriend’s beauty opened doors throughout the Caribbean, though not in Cuba. There she was interrogated every time she tried to enter a Havana tourist hotel she was visiting

“Well, you look just like a nice Cuban girl!” the hotel manager of Spanish descent told her sympathetically, after she had vented her outrage. It’s a common complaint – one that left-leaning Jamaican and black American elites, curiously, never complain about.

When retelling her story of being wrongly “profiled,” incidentally, my girlfriend displayed none of the venom and insecurity one often finds among members of minority groups in America, when relating similar incidents.

For my part, I was surprised a Cuban doorman didn't find my Jamaican girlfriend as captivating as I did. But what constitutes beauty or “blackness” can be complicated, I realized. The same can be said for racism. You’d think decent people would know it when they see it. But I’m not quite so sure anymore – except to know that today in America it’s overused more often than not due to our hypersensitivity about race. There’s also no doubting that our ideals are simply much higher than in other countries – though we never get as much credit for those ideals as for our failure to consistently reach them.

As to Mexico, I’m withholding judgment on whether the country has a serious “race problem.” Despite that ambivalence I won’t be buying any of those postage stamps.