Chavez takes over Hilton hotel

Chavez takes over Hilton hotel

Socialist hotel empire grows as Venezuelan prez seizes second property

What used to be the Caracas Hilton today soars over Venezuela’s capital as a bold symbol of Hugo Chavez’s leftist revolution, a 36-storey, state-run declaration of intent.

The government took it over from the US hotel chain two years ago as part of a sweep towards greater state economic control. Renamed Alba — “dawn” in Spanish and also the acronym of Chavez’s regional alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas — the hotel hosts summits which condemn US imperialism and chart a brighter, leftist future.

“We are the first socialist hotel but hopefully not the last,” said Katiuska Camaripano, its general manager.

Last week it acquired a sister: the government seized the Hilton on Margarita island, Venezuela’s tourist playground. It had angered Chavez during a meeting of African leaders he hosted at the hotel. “The owners tried to impose conditions on the revolutionary government. No way. So I said, ‘Let us expropriate it.’ And now it’s been expropriated.”

A presidential decree transferred its assets, including 280 rooms, 210 suites, shops, restaurants and a casino to the tourism ministry. A Hilton spokeswoman said the chain was “evaluating” the government’s action.

Two years after it became a political as well as geographic landmark, the Caracas Alba draws mixed reviews.

Managers say it blends socialist values with business savvy and top-notch service. Critics say it is a dump in which nothing works.

There are some striking changes. Gone are the American and European managers and well-heeled foreign guests who used to snap up jewellery and cosmetics in the shops. Red-clad government officials and Cuban delegations have largely taken their place. “Business is dead. All we’ll sell is chewing gum and antibiotics,” lamented one store owner.

The Italian restaurant now serves more Caribbean fare such as chicken in coconut sauce and cachapa, a corn-based pancake. The gift shop offers a range of ceramic Chavez mugs and sculptures ranging from $20 to $240.

The bookshop which sold glossy magazines and Dan Brown novels has been replaced by a culture ministry outlet offering political tracts such as Transition Towards Socialism and Venezuela: a Revolution Sui Generis.

Managers say the 400 staff —who were retained from the Hilton era — reflect socialist values by doing voluntary work such as rubbish collection on their days off. The hotel says it does its bit by giving staff generous benefits not stipulated in their contracts, such as paying for babysitters, and by hosting poor children and hospital patients.