Hot Pants

A visit to ousted Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh’s new presidential museum.

SANAA - I hadn't even finished reading the first sentence of the first report on Yemen's most written-about museum, but I already knew I'd have to visit.

It wasn't the elephant tusks, the decorative swords, or the Swedish health-food products -- I would only learn that these were some of the items on display later. No, the first thing I learned about the museum that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh had built to commemorate his rule was that it showcased a pair of pants. But not just any pants: These were the pants Saleh had donned that fateful day when a bomb blast nearly killed him.

I needed to see Yemen's most infamous pair of trousers. To my mind, the display seemed an odd combination of politics, kitsch, and conflicted nostalgia over the recent past -- an Arab Spring equivalent of the National Museum of American History's exhibit featuring Archie Bunker's chair. 

But the museum was still not open to the public. Unwilling to wait, I decided to mine my contacts to get in. The gatekeeper, it seemed, was one of Saleh's secretaries; a friend passed on the number of his assistant, and a call to him yielded a meeting with the secretary the next day.

I assumed his aim was to vet me. This being Yemen, the word "meeting" was actually a euphemism for qat chew, meaning he had a full afternoon to do so. We mostly talked politics -- the museum barely figured into our conversation. I did confess the sartorially rooted purpose of my visit to his assistant. That didn't appear to be a problem: I made it to the museum, housed inside the 4-year-old, $60 million Saleh Mosque, two days later.

As I descended a staircase in the sumptuously decorated compound and entered the exhibition, I discovered I wasn't the only visitor. Oddly, there was a group of Asian tourists milling about.

The museum is tastefully decorated -- more akin to an American presidential library than anything else. The items on display, mostly gifts given to Saleh by foreign dignitaries, were almost comically dissimilar. An impressive assortment of decorative swords sat a few yards away from a display case dominated by metal "Central Intelligence Agency" and "House of Representatives" plates, which struck me as the kind of souvenirs a Midwestern grandmother would purchase on a visit to Washington.

Pride of place was rightfully given to the charred article of clothing I'd come here to see. The bottom half of a mannequin, placed in a glass display case in the center of the larger of the museum's two rooms, sported the black dress pants. A decent portion of the front of the pants, it appeared, had evaporated in the explosion that nearly killed Saleh. His black Montblanc belt, however, remained intact.

Staring blankly at the display, I flashed back to June 3, 2011. I don't recall hearing the sound of the fateful blast, but as word spread of an explosion at the mosque where Saleh was praying, I was jolted from yet another Friday of mass protests, spurred to push through the crowd in pursuit of a TV.

At that point, no one knew where the country was headed. Despite assurances otherwise, Saleh seemed dead set against signing an internationally backed agreement that would have him cede power. Twelve days before the fateful explosion, clashes ignited between pro-Saleh troops and fighters loyal to one of the most powerful tribal leaders in the country, who had broken with the former president two months prior. As parts of Sanaa descended into urban warfare, the hopes and aspirations of those who had taken to the streets with the aim of toppling Saleh by peaceful means were all but drowned out by the sound of shelling. Saleh's near-death experience, everybody knew, would be a game changer -- though at the time, no one knew exactly how.

Government officials were claiming that Saleh had only suffered minor injuries, but his failure to appear on television that night seemed to confirm suspicions that things were far more serious. Staring out at a blackout-darkened Sanaa from the roof of a friend's apartment building, I was seized with a sense of foreboding. Heading back to my house exhausted, my cab driver was moved to ask me if things were this bad in "my country," apparently mistakenly assuming I was Pakistani.

In the heat of the moment, Saleh's subsequent flight to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment seemed to provide a way out of the country's political crisis. Here, citizens were hoping, was a Yemeni deus ex machina

"It would be absurd for Saleh to return," a Yemeni analyst told me the next day, speaking with infectious optimism. Three months later, of course, return he did.

Face to face with Saleh's totaled trousers, it was hard to feel anything other than sympathy with and -- dare I say -- admiration for the controversial leader, who rose from humble beginnings to rule Yemen for longer than any leader since the fall of the country's monarchy. Say what you will about the former president, but he still did something that every other leader targeted by the Arab Spring refused to do: He ceded power. It might have been months late and it may have been on his terms, but he managed to retain his reputation as a survivor in the process.

Leaving the building, rather self-conscious about being swayed by a charred article of clothing, I ultimately concluded the museum has done its job. Whatever you say about Saleh's PR team, they're still able to get the message out.

But would Yemenis feel the same way? Checking in with a friend and his father the next afternoon, I showed them my photos from the museum, curious to gauge their reactions. They're a dissimilar pair -- a deeply pragmatic tribal sheikh and his idealistic, college-educated son -- and I'd never known either to hide his disdain for Saleh.

But uncharacteristically, this time they didn't say much. My friend, noting the locations of the pants' burn damage, did make a joke that was racy enough that he felt compelled to say it in English so his father wouldn't understand. But in place of seething anger directed at Saleh, they seemed mainly to be subsumed by a passive, broadly directed malaise.

My friend, whom I'd met during the protests, had risked everything to join the revolution. It was one of his only significant acts of filial rebellion: Upon discovering that my friend had joined the demonstrations in secret, his father, enraged by fear, dragged him to their village and shackled him in the basement. He remained defiant, refusing food and drink for days until his father, moved by the show of commitment, relented and gave his blessing.

But the discrepancy between Yemen's political reality and what many hoped the protests would achieve had transformed him into a pessimist. "My father was right, and I was wrong," he said, each syllable dripping with emotion. "It was all pointless. Nothing changed."

The weight of his words rendered both of us silent for a good 10 minutes.

Many cast the negotiated nature of Saleh's departure as a necessary, if far from ideal, step that saved Yemen from being engulfed in a civil war. Still, the goal of 2011's protests, as those taking part stressed even at the time, was not solely the end of Saleh's time in office -- it was the fall of the regime. But today, there's a new man at the head -- Saleh's longtime Vice President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was elected, so to speak, in a vote where he was the sole candidate.

But if Hadi's steps toward reform have garnered cautious support from many of his predecessor's fiercest opponents, few shy away from noting that the previous regime lingers on. The ultimate fate of Yemen's most divisive military leaders -- Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, and Saleh ally-turned-defector Ali Mohsen -- remains unclear. Even the political rhetoric of the factions in the current unity government has remained strikingly similar to the Saleh era.

For Yemenis like my friend, it's hard to get very worked up over something like the Saleh museum. He may no longer be president, but Saleh still heads one of Yemen's most powerful political parties, still makes periodic speeches, and still resides in a well-protected home in central Sanaa.

Even those who continue to fight the good fight have largely responded to the museum's opening with little more than mild bemusement. Meeting with a bunch of activist friends the day before my visit, I barely elicited a reaction when I announced my plan to visit the museum. The real offense to the revolution, one seethed, are the presumptuous gestures toward "youth inclusion" in a transitional process presided over by most of the same people Yemeni youths had taken to the streets to overthrow.

These activists hoped that the events of 2011 would truly change the country -- that they'd spawn some new political force. And for a few moments, it did seem that Yemen was entering a new era. But recalling the hundreds of hours I logged listening to the aspirations and anxieties of the remarkably diverse array of Yemenis camped in Change Square -- Sanaa's once-sprawling, now all but abandoned anti-government sit-in -- it is hard not to sympathize with those demoralized by the lack of change.

The old order lives on: Two years later, Yemenis are still talking about most of the same people they were talking about before the protests even began. It may take an "ousted" leader opening a museum dedicated to his rule for the rest of the world to be alerted to this. But the vast majority of Yemenis need no reminder.



A Tale of Two Chávezes

For those who loved and reviled Venezuela's president in equal measure, El Comandante leaves behind two very different legacies.

CARACAS — Hundreds of thousands of citizens, and more than a score of world leaders, gathered Friday, March 8, in the Venezuelan capital to bid farewell to fallen President Hugo Chávez.

People openly wept as the president was eulogized, with many saying that Chávez would live forever in people's memories. Ana Rodriguez and Nora Albas say they will remember El Comandante as long as they live.

Their reasons, however, are quite different.

Albas, 32, is the wife of a farmer in the central state of Aragua. She's an admitted rojo rojito (reddest of the red), or a super-Chavista. Thanks to various government loans, Albas and her husband have been able to expand their small 6-acre farm, which is mostly planted in tomatoes and peppers.

The couple said that they have received various farm tools for free and have access to discounted fertilizers and seeds when they are available. Her consejo comunal, or government commune, also paved the lane leading to their farm. She admits that she doesn't understand that much about socialism, but says it is far superior to the capitalism that preceded it.

"Chávez has made a huge difference in our lives," said Albas, who looks younger than her age. "Thanks to El Comandante, we have much more now than we did before. Our children have more of a future. And now I have a voice in what happens."

Such optimism isn't shared by Rodriguez, a 30-year-old doctor in the central industrial city of Maracay. She claims that Chávez, who died March 5 after a two-year bout with cancer, has destroyed the country, both politically and economically.

"My family owned a farm in Guárico [a central agricultural state] for years. We weren't rich but we had a comfortable life -- but we worked for it. Seven years ago, the government expropriated our farm," she said. "My father gave his life to it, and now he has nothing. They haven't given us any re-compensation at all. My father used to spend all of his time there. Now his day consists of sitting in front of the computer and playing hearts online."

Her one brother had to emigrate, thanks to Chávez's policies, Rodriguez said.

"He is a petroleum engineer, and when Chávez nationalized oil operations here, he lost his job at the U.S. company that employed him. He's bright and hardworking, but he couldn't work for Petróleos de Venezuela [PDVSA, the state oil company] because he signed the recall petition against Chávez in 2004. If you signed the petition, you're automatically blacklisted from all government jobs."

More than 2.7 million people signed the petition, or roughly 10 percent of the population. Many subsequently lost their jobs in the resulting witch hunt to root out Chávez's critics.

"I work in a state hospital and I love my work, but crime is horrible," said Rodriguez. "We've had gang members come into the emergency room, hoping to kill people they had shot and had been taken to us. I can't leave the hospital at night because we have so much crime. And people just assume I have money as I am a doctor."

The two women's stories hint at what may be El Comandante's ultimate gift to his country: extreme polarization. Before Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuelans were politically apathetic. That's no longer the case.

"Chávez's election shattered the institutional political arrangements by which Venezuela had been governed," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College. "He directed popular discontent into the electoral arena and recast the Venezuelan state as an advocate of those who felt excluded."

Their inclusion, however, has come at a cost, said other analysts.

"Chávez brought in the poor, who were formerly excluded, into the country's political process. There was a social/economic redistribution of wealth. The downside was the political polarization that occurred under him," said Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group political-risk consultancy. "He excluded large parts of society, especially those who disagreed with him."

Albas had little to do with politics before Chávez was elected. Today, she is a member of Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela and goes door to door before elections, urging her neighbors to get out and vote.

She is active in her commune, and she and her husband have taken an active role in the village where they live. Since Chávez's death was announced, she has been playing Chavista music and old speeches of El Comandante at full blast so her neighbors can hear.

"Chávez gave us a better life, and we have to continue fighting to improve it," she said.

The government's social and economic programs -- embodied in Chávez's so-called missions -- have had a marked impact on Venezuela, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

"Poverty has been reduced by half, and extreme poverty by two-thirds," Weisbrot said.

Government programs have concentrated on health, education, and food. Misión Barrio Adentro, for example, started thousands of clinics in low-income areas, often staffed by Cuban medical personnel. Misión Mercal created a chain of government stores that sell basic foodstuffs at a discount.

But even Albas admitted that Chávez's revolution has a long way to go.

Her village is plagued by constant power outages, and her husband often has to spend days trying to locate hard-to-find fertilizers, seeds, and insecticides -- all of which have skyrocketed in price.

"Crime is horrible," she confirmed, noting that in her village of 2,000 inhabitants there have been four murders in the last year and two kidnappings. "The police do nothing, and the value of a human life means nothing these days. Young people don't want to work for what they have. They prefer to steal it."

One of her daughters used to go to an elementary school, but it has been closed since September because of heavy rains that compromised its structural integrity. Classes are now being held in a private home that has no running water or electricity. Her other daughter had to transfer to another high school because of constant gunfire outside. The nearest government health clinic has no supplies, said Alba, and she doesn't trust the Cuban doctors who man a health center in a nearby village.

"We took our daughter to the government health center in an emergency, and they had nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of drugs," she said. "We had to go looking for the drug they prescribed from pharmacy to pharmacy at 6 a.m. It was horrible. And the drug was something commonly prescribed. They just had nothing."

Corruption is also a fact of life in her consejo comunal, where money is constantly being lost. But Albas never blames Chávez for the problems.

"Chávez was honest and cared for us," she said. "His people are another matter. Many of them only mouth support while stealing from the country."

Rodriguez and Albas at least agree about that.

"My boss at the state clinic claims to be a socialist, a revolutionary," said Rodriguez. "But I think his commitment to the revolution goes only as deep as his wearing a red Izod shirt to work. He has used his position to enrich himself. Our health center has little in supplies."

As food supplies have dwindled this winter, absenteeism among food company employees now runs at about 14 percent, according to officials at the country's Federation of Chambers of Commerce. Labor laws make it near impossible to fire workers, and many have taken advantage of the rulings to sit home and not show up to work.

"Every Sunday it's the same thing," said Rodriguez. "People come to the center asking me to write them excuses so they don't have to work on Monday."

Rodriguez often thinks that she should join her brother in seeking a life overseas, but she is reluctant to leave her parents, especially her father who is now overweight, suffering from high blood pressure and high blood sugar. He has stopped trying to get his farm back.

"It's producing very little now in any case," said Rodriguez. "The people who took it over are basically subsistence farmers. They killed most of the livestock, and they haven't planted much because they are supposedly waiting for government loans."

Rodriguez is bitter, she admits. She notes, acridly, that food supplies have dwindled thanks to the government's agricultural policies. Basic foodstuffs such as sugar, cornmeal, cooking oil, coffee, and chicken -- which were never in short supply -- are now difficult to find.

The government's foreign exchange policies, which include a fixed rate for the bolívar and limited access to hard currency, have resulted in shortages of many medicines as well. February's 32 percent devaluation has only made it worse.

"But still the poor support the government," she said, shaking her head. "Chávez is popular now because he bought support with his various programs and giveaways. But at what cost? Today, we have a country where no one wants to work, and the government has become the chief employer. If we didn't have oil, this would all come crashing down."

It's hard to argue that Venezuela's fiscal situation hasn't markedly worsened under Chávez.

The national debt, including that of state oil company PDVSA, which funds many government programs, has more than quadrupled to $140 billion in the last seven years, as Chávez and his government borrowed heavily to fund social spending, especially in election years. But few Venezuelans seem to care, especially as the country has the world's largest oil reserves. Meanwhile, Venezuela' s oil output has fallen 25 percent since Chávez took office.

Albas admitted that she is worried about the future.

"I support the revolution, but sometimes I just wonder if we're really ready, really prepared for self-government, for socialism," she said. "I just wonder."

AFP/Getty Images