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America From Abroad : Northern Exposure : U.S. culture permeates Caracas, a city of freeways and penny loafers.


CARACAS, Venezuela — The car is a Jeep Cherokee, the singer on the radio is Whitney Houston. The freeways speak of Los Angeles, the high-rise skyline of New York or Houston. The signs beckon passersby to eat Big Macs and Whoppers. This is a Latin American metropolis, but it might as well be Anywhere, U.S.A.

There is certainly no other major city in this part of the world in which North Americans feel as comfortable--at least, in what they see and even eat.

For Caracas--one of South America's oldest cities and, as Simon Bolivar's capital, once the center of Latin America's 19th-Century independence drive--carries the most indelible imprint of U.S. influence in this part of the world.

America is everywhere. There appear to be more U.S.-made cars on the streets here than even in the United States. And they are the cars Americans can only dream of now. Huge Ford LTDs, massive Chevrolets, Lincoln Town Cars. The gas-guzzling monsters of the 1970s, virtually banned in the north, but still produced here as if it were 1973, not 1993.

Wide California-like freeways extend throughout and around the city, connecting the American-style commercial centers complete with towering office buildings and apartment houses. With the exception of a tiny, almost hidden and touristy enclave, Caracas retains about as much of its Spanish colonial heritage as New York does its Dutch background.

The young men don button-down shirts, khaki pants and penny loafers. The girls are in miniskirts and bobby socks.

Even the vegetation reminds one more of Georgia than the tropics. There are more palm trees and ferns in Miami than Caracas.

Language doesn't escape either. The guard at the door is a guachiman, or watchman. At the bar you order guiski (whiskey) and when you buy gas for your carro you get it ful. A radio newscast spoke of fire arms in discussing a gun-control debate.

There are legitimate Spanish expressions for all of these words, but in Caracas, where Lucky Strike cigarettes are advertised in English as "An American Original," a combination of American English and Spanish known as Spanglish is common.

The reasons for the Americanization of Venezuela are many. Because Venezuela's massive oil fields were exploited originally by U.S. companies, the American influence hit here harder and earlier than in, say, Bogota, Colombia.

Caracas is only a three-hour flight from Miami and was a major shipping stop for U.S. travelers before air travel. "Americans have been coming here for vacations and to do business for most of this century," explained Joe Mann, a journalist and political analyst who moved here from New York 20 years ago.

In addition, Venezuela, and particularly Caracas, is and has been for more than 200 years very cosmopolitan--open to the rest of the world. The population is largely white European with Italians among the major ethnic groups.

There are large numbers of Germans and Central Europeans. Jews play a significant role in business and culture. The latest migration is of Arabs, so much so that one of the tallest and most noticeable buildings in the center of town is a new mosque.

"What this means," says Charles Brewer, an anthropologist and former government minister, "is that we have always been open to foreign ideas, fashions and influence."

Brewer is not a unique name here; neither is Charles, nor Jennifer nor Alan. The telephone directory is ful of non-Spanish names.

"And because of the close proximity of the United States and the general worldwide cultural incursion of American things, Venezuela is affected perhaps more than others," Brewer said.

Another factor, according to Mann, has been the relatively widespread wealth of Venezuela. "The middle class had lots of money from World War II on, because of the postwar oil boom," he said.

"America was the model, the modern mecca for these people. They looked to the United States after the war, not Spain or France or Britain. They sent their kids to American schools here and colleges there; they bought their clothes there; they vacationed there; they even bought second homes there."

This influence has been so strong that it has overcome some of the most protectionist trade policies in South America. Until recently high tariffs kept out many foreign products, including those from the United States. But in the last four years the government has liberalized the economy and lowered tariffs, making U.S. goods cheaper.

Advertising is supposed to be in Spanish, and even the English-language newspaper here carries its institutional ads in the mother tongue.

But to no real effect.

Among the most noticeable street ads are those for English-language schools. "Digale YES al ingles," says one of the most popular. "Say YES to English."

Do you want to buy American clothes and not Venezuelan-made copies? Try the Gap store across the street from the Hilton Hotel. Need a book? Go to "The American Book Shop," one of Caracas' largest, where the signs say "Open" and the door says "Push."

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