Friday, 9 January 2009

Breast Surgery in Revolutionary Venezuela

Fake Tits in Venezuela – The ultimate degeneration or an indication of democracy at work?

Venezuela is a country of extreme contrasts. The landscape ranges from the Andean mountains to Caribbean coast and Amazon jungle. The people descend from  primitive indigenous tribes, imported African slaves and European conquerors. Venezuela was liberated by national hero Simon Bolivar with the aid of the British army. The modern political history is just as turbulent. Since liberation, a variety of tyrants from all political persuasions have sought to exploit the many natural resources of the country; oil, gold, diamonds, water and the people themselves. The current president, an ex-convict, socialist coup leader, Hugo Chavez, is no less controversial than his predecessors. He has been criticised by globalist powers for manipulating world oil prices after being made president of OPEC, socialising with the likes of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein and also for making un-diplomatic statements such as referring to the king of Spain as a fascist and George Bush as the devil.

In the West we hear a lot of negative things about the Venezuelan government and although it is true there is a certain amount of incompetence for which they should be held accountable, the idea that they are imposing some kind of undemocratic communist dictatorship is not true. The press is free to write slanderous lies about the government, more so even than they are in England (there are fewer libel laws in Venezuela). Claiming the elections are not fair and democratic is far-fetched as they were overseen by the ex-US president Jimmy Carter and utilise an electronic system that can’t fall prey to the confusion caused by the cross or tick problems seen in Florida.

Chavez is an outspoken kind of politician, never afraid to speak his mind on the most trivial of issues; he even has his own day time TV talk-show called Hello President which is like a cross between Jeremy Kyle and Question time. One of the statements made on the show last September was a criticism of the Venezuelan attitude towards cosmetic surgery and female beauty; particularly the popular phenomenon of teenage girls being given breast enlargements as birthday presents from their parents.

"Now some people think, 'my daughter's turning 15, let's give her breast enlargements.' That's horrible. It's the ultimate degeneration."

Venezuela is world renowned for its beauty queens, producing more international pageant winners than any other country. If you visit the beaches and cities you can’t help but notice the number of women sporting over-sized artificial breasts. There is no social stigma associated with cosmetic surgery. Middle class women are almost expected to be vain and image obsessed. There was once a mayor of Chacao, a wealthy district in the nation’s capital Caracas, who had previously been a beauty pageant winner. She also ran for president but could not compete with Chavez. I was told that businessmen whose secretaries are not well endowed may be perceived as being losers. This attitude toward a women’s body suggests a sexist culture, this however is not an accurate perception.

Women in Venezuela have infiltrated all areas of power, from science to the military. They are also usually the head of the household; it is not uncommon for a woman to have children with a number of fathers and take her children with her, gaining support from interchangeable husbands. Despite the fact the women are culturally independent and certainly not passive slaves to patriarchal tyranny, one can’t help but wonder if some of these doctors are taking advantage of the insecurities of young women who aspire toward the national ideal of pageant winning beauty, plastic tits and bleached blonde hair. Essentially the same ideal of beauty as is prevalent in California. Chavez also criticised the culture, claiming it was indicative of an Americanised Barbie doll ideal, totally inappropriate for a largely brown skinned country like Venezuela.

When I asked young women about their reasons for wanting surgery, they were defensive in their responses, perhaps seeing the question as an attempt to invalidate their decision. Typically they said that they were doing it for themselves and not being pressured into it by peers or boyfriends but when pushed they would admit to doing it for their careers or because they had a negative self-image. This could be attributed to the way the media in Venezuela constantly portray Americanised visions of beauty as an ideal for women to aspire to; whether on the popular soaps known as telenovelas or on the billboard beer commercials with bikini clad Barbie beach babes, almost always white and no strangers to the surgeon's knife. The popularity of breast surgery and other non essential cosmetic surgery seems unashamedly decadent when you consider that Venezuela is a country where the vast majority of the population live in cinder block houses in vast crime ridden shanty towns. These shanty towns known as barrios are amongst the most dangerous neighbourhoods on the entire American landmass, and it is here that Chavez finds support.

The underclass has been repressed for decades and their problems ignored by a succession of governments, but Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution promised to change this and to some extent it has, with a number of projects and education initiatives providing university education for free as well as housing and food discounts for students. There are also initiatives to provide low level education for children and adults as well as healthcare to those who have fallen through the nets, all paid for with the country’s vast oil wealth, much to the dismay of the old leaders of nationalised oil company PDVSA, who had previously profited in unfair proportions from the oil money. Chavez has registered those living in the Barrios as official citizens with the power to vote. Under the previous president Carlos Andres Perez, they weren't even acknowledged as citizens of Venezuela because their shanty town dwellings are built illegally and births are often unregistered. To the young women of the barrios, breast surgery is a ridiculous luxury that they hold little to no interest in. The young women of the barrios now have hope, They can afford to become students as there are no fees and students get housing and food for heavily reduced rates. Many of them are using the new opportunities to promote the revolution and are ferocious supporters of Hugo Chavez.

There is a lot of tension between the privileged oligarchy and the underclass and the political propaganda of Chavez’ party and the opposition parties tend to exasperate the situation. Opposition supporters sometimes call for the assassination of Chavez who they see as an under-qualified maniac who has given power to a dangerous criminal under class. Chavistas on the other hand regard the wealthier class as decadent, bigoted, right-wing tyrants, whose greed fuels their hatred for the revolution. This tension is certainly not helped by the vast and obvious wealth divide. While some women can go on weekend shopping sprees to Miami, live in waterfront mansions or luxury penthouses and spend a huge amount on luxury items and services such as breast enlargements and designer clothing, other women struggle to keep their children fed and clothed. There are large families living under corrugated iron roofs in tropical conditions where dengue and malaria are a constant threat to their children’s lives and medical treatment is still difficult to acquire.

Many medical professionals in Venezuela refuse to work in public hospitals and won’t go near the practices set up in the Barrios to give treatment to those that need it most. The president tried to overcome this by importing doctors from Cuba, which his good friend Castro was happy to supply. Instead Venezuelan doctors go where the money is, either working for a private practice in Venezuela or perhaps more frequently working abroad. Of course, a career in cosmetic surgery is a lucrative pursuit in Venezuela or California. I saw plastic surgery practices in every city centre and was shocked how easy it was to get surgery. Virtually no checks are made in regards to the ethics of treatment. When I interviewed a surgeon, he said as long as they are of legal age or below age but have parental consent and can pay, then there is no ethical concern. I asked him if he thought that his skills could be put to better use elsewhere for the services of his country “I have to make a living too” was his nonchalant reply. It seems that as long as it is convenient and financially viable to exploit people rather than to help them, then Venezuela’s people will continue to suffer and the divide between rich and poor will continue to grow.