If you watched Venezuelan state-run television in early 2009, you probably saw a sweetly smiling young Italian woman wearing a neon-green chef's hat and brandishing a pizza while extolling the virtues of indefinite re-election. Venezuela was gearing up for a referendum to eliminate term limits for government posts, and a savvy producer had decided to enlist the country's resident foreigners to support President Hugo Chávez's bid to stay in power past 2012, when his current term expires. The ad also featured an Englishwoman daintily sipping tea, a German dressed something like a yodeler, and a beret-clad Frenchman holding a baguette across his chest. "In France, we didn't have term limits, but the parliament made a change without consulting the people. What luck you have to be able to choose!" the Frenchman declared.
I had come to Venezuela to cover the Feb. 15 referendum, but I became obsessed by these people. Who were they? Caracas is a dirty, run-down, violent city where tourism is almost nonexistent—Buenos Aires' evil twin—and yet a vital cadre of expats has sprung up there. Most are dedicated to building Chávez's Bolivarian revolution, as he calls it. Yet unlike the millions of poor Venezuelans who make up chavismo's base, they tend to come from middle-class backgrounds; they're well-educated and well-traveled. And unlike the well-connected "Bolivarian bourgeoisie," they generally aren't sucking on the teat of government largess—no plasma TVs, no Hummers, no scotch. In fact, they tend to live humbly, many of them in illegally built, ramshackle apartments called ranchitos, where, judging from the holes in the ceiling, every heavy rainfall puts their laptops and video cameras in mortal danger. Plenty have suffered muggings.
A French friend who makes pro-Chávez documentaries—a veritable cottage industry in Venezuela—put me in touch with the Italian from the referendum ad, Barbara Meo Evoli. Now 27, she first came to Caracas in 2006 after getting her degree in international law. She had wanted to get away from Europe, and as a "lifelong leftist" she was curious about Chávez and his "socialism of the 21st century." Speaking with people, getting involved in community projects, she quickly became fascinated. "At first I wasn't really clear on what I wanted to do in my life," she told me. "But after a few months, I realized I wanted to be a journalist. ... Being far from your country, I think, sometimes helps you understand yourself, no?" Though she now has a full-time job at a newspaper for Venezuela's Italian community, she regards her freelance work for publications back home—such as Il Manifesto, a Communist daily—as her most valuable contribution to "the process." Her goal, she said, is to provide a counterbalance for what she sees as willful distortion in mainstream European media.
I thought of Evoli's cameo in the ad, in which she cheerily told Venezuelans: "In Italy, we can pick the politicians we like many times, without that right being limited by a law." These days, Italy's prime minister is Silvio Berlusconi—a fact the ad doesn't mention. It is probably not a comparison Chávez would cherish. Referring to Europe, Evoli told me: "Honest information on Venezuela simply doesn't arrive there."
A Spanish friend of Evoli's, Fernando Casado, met me the following day in a spare conference room in a building belonging to the ministry of higher education, which he advises. A professor at the Bolivarian University, he had gelled-back hair and a precise, didactic manner. He came to Caracas in 2005 explicitly intending to participate in the revolution. I asked him if, after so much time there, he saw flaws in the process. "Perhaps," he said, choosing his words carefully. "The ideal is so ambitious ... that its practical realization runs into problems, realities that every human being possesses." I asked if he was speaking of corruption or crime—both endemic in Venezuela. He switched to heavily accented English to tell me, coldly, "That's a leading question."
During the conversation, we kept a Chávez-like pace of espresso consumption: two in a half-hour. "I work for the revolution," Casado told me. "I've never believed in borders—I believe borders are superfluous divisions of political maps. I came here because there's a marvelous revolutionary process that I believe in, that I identify with." He went on, "It could be anywhere in the world. That doesn't matter—it's the revolution." He planned to stay in Venezuela, working for what he saw as a crucial paradigm shift in the way states are organized, as long as the revolution remained "true" to its ideals.
On referendum day, I met a 6-foot-4 platinum-headed German named Tilo Schmidt as we waited for Chávez to show up to vote at a high school in a poor neighborhood. Schmidt, 33, was filming a pro-Chávez documentary and staying at Casa Azul, a sprawling apartment in downtown Caracas that is a kind of cross between a hostel and a commune. I visited him there a couple of days later. The rooms are small and simple. There are Che Guevara posters on the walls and laundry hanging in the open-air patio. American intervention in Latin America is the usual dinner conversation. Another Casa Azul tenant was the "German" yodeler of the referendum ad (she turned out to be Austrian). It's a sketchy area, Schmidt told me: "I get this kind of paranoid feeling on the streets—I don't go out at night." Still, he felt swept up in what he saw going on around him.
Jojo Farrell, who now lives in New York but used to coordinate Venezuelan "reality tours" through a nonprofit called Global Exchange, had seen a lot of "starry-eyed" types come through the house. "It's exciting to be marching in the streets, the aura of change," he said. "Elections are like a party here." But he acknowledged that these expat chavistas would never have as much at stake as the Venezuelans involved in the process, because if things turned sour, they could always leave. "You've always got the ticket out," he said; Schmidt, for one, was staying just another week.
After leaving Caracas, I managed to get hold of Eva Golinger, a thirtysomething American lawyer who is, in her own words, "an emblematic figure of the process." I interviewed her shortly after she returned from a literary festival in Cuba. In 2005, she published a book called The Chávez Code, which digested thousands of official documents related to U.S. meddling in Venezuelan affairs. She's on television all the time these days, sometimes even appearing with Chávez, who once called her "the bride of Venezuela." She was able to get citizenship because her mother is Venezuelan, but she doesn't fully identify herself with either nationality: "Every revolution has its internationalists, people who've come from abroad and become intimately involved with the struggle," she said. "It's fundamental."
Because of her outspoken criticisms of the Venezuelan opposition and the U.S. government, Golinger has received death threats. Her apartment has been broken into and trashed. She acknowledges that Caracas is not an easy city to live in—unlike "people-friendly" New York, her home base until 2005. But perhaps her biggest sacrifice came when her involvement in the revolution began to cause friction with her Venezuelan husband and his family. They eventually divorced. "He gave me an ultimatum," she said: "Him and life in New York or the revolution. I chose the revolution. It's my life, it's my principles and values and ideals, my dreams.
"It's too bad. He felt threatened by it. I'm not sorry—it's sad, but those things happen. They make you stronger. They reinforce your choice, because it's the path that's right for you."