For Venezuelans fed up with life under 21st-century socialism, checking in at Maiquetia International Airport in Caracas is a breath of fresh air. That's exactly what the gatekeepers of the Bolivarian Republic had in mind when they dreamed up the latest levy on the wallets of companeros on the wing.
On July 1, the government of President Nicolas Maduro started collecting a fresh-air tax on airline passengers at the country's biggest airport. The charge -- about $20 -- is (please inhale) for breathing the air at Maiquetia's departure terminal, where the ventilation system apparently has been enhanced with refreshing dollops of ozone. Minister of Water and Air Transport Major General Hebert Garcia Plaza heralded the innovation as a Latin American first, claiming that the ozone-laced air will keep travelers safe by killing airborne germs and stale air.
Most others in this land of 29 million are holding their noses. Not least because, as Venezuelans know too well, taxes have a life of their own. "They've already raised the breathing tax at Maiquetia," one passenger tweeted after the government practically doubled the levy in less than two weeks. "Feeling a little more asphyxiated?" Another wondered what's next: "This is a trial balloon, [soon] they'll be taxing us to cross the street."
For all the stink, Venezuelans are used to this. At a time when the government choke hold on the economy has made toilet paper disappear and turned oil into red ink, freshening the air might seem like an improvement. But the official palate for exotica keeps the country gasping.
Surrealism was the hallmark of the late Hugo Chavez's oeuvre. To distinguish his experiment in tropical socialism from garden-variety capitalism and its petit Yanqui keepers, he had the Venezuelan flag redesigned to make the horse on the shield gallop left instead of right. He changed the time zone, turning back clocks half an hour to snub "imperialist" timekeepers and give working folk and schoolchildren some extra winks. He had his ministers raise their left hands to swear in. His favorite website even spoke of copyleft instead of copyright.
Always the clown prince, Chavez, who died last year of cancer, charmed Venezuelans with his antics and gags. Without the Comandante's wit or bons mots, Maduro must settle for smoke and mirrors. He claimed to have seen the late leader in the form of a small bird, and again etched on the wall of a metro station tunnel in Caracas.
When he isn't invoking Chavez from the grave, Maduro tweaks the calendar. Last year, he created the Ministry of Social Happiness and honored the fallen leader with a new holiday, the Day of Loyalty and Love for Supreme Commander Hugo Chávez and the Homeland. To sugar the lot of hardworking Venezuelans and advance holiday bonuses, he decreed an early Christmas.
The feeling might be spreading. Bolivian President Evo Morales recently dictated that all watches run counterclockwise with the hands moving from 1 to 12, backward. "Why not?" asked Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, explaining that the move was in honor of the rhythms of the Southern Hemisphere. "We celebrate June 21 as the winter solstice."
And they said magical realism was dead.
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