4/30/03

A PATRIOT OF VENEZUELA AND MINNESOTA

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Leon Topel is battling cancer, but he doesn't talk about it much.

He's too much in love and too desperately worried about his home country of Venezuela to dwell for long on his own travails.

Leon and Cora Topel started coming to Rochester in 1977. That was the year their daughter, also named Cora, got sick and needed better medical care than they could get in their home town of Valencia, Venezuela.

They got good news and bad news from their Mayo doctors. The good news was that Cora's sickness wasn't fatal. The bad news was that it would have to be watched and managed from year to year, probably for her whole life.

Wandering through downtown Rochester back then, Leon Topel, an owner of real estate, publishing, and manufacturing concerns in Venezuela, looked carefully at the town he'd likely call a second home for years to come.

The gothic grandeur of the Plummer Building, piercing the Midwestern sky like a French cathedral, struck him. So did the relaxed pace and the high level of education for such a small town. So did the economic stability that IBM and the Mayo Clinic obviously lent Rochester.

"I realized that I would be related to the Mayo Clinic and to Rochester for the rest of my life because of my daughter," he said. "And I liked Rochester very much. To me it's something like a European city. So instead of investing in another place, like many other Venezuelans do, I invested here."

He bought a red brick building on Third Street, downtown's "historic" mini-mall with Wong's Cafe at one end and Bilotti's Pizza at the other. In later years, with local partners, he built 50 duplex homes in the Liberty Manor development in northwest Rochester.

He's living now in a short-lease apartment downtown as he receives several rounds of chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic. But if you sit down with Leon for a chat, as I did last week, he doesn't fret about his health.

The cancer of despotism and authoritarian government -- in the person of Hugo Chavez, the Marxist president of Venezuela -- is what's on his mind.

"Chavez is taking control of everything, from the Supreme Court to the National Assembly to Venezuela's oil industry, and also the Army," he said. "He pays them all through corruption. Our democracy is at stake. If this isn't resolved, there could be a civil war in Venezuela."

Like Fidel Castro's recent execution of political opponents and Robert Mugabe's decimation of Zimbabwe's democracy, the crisis in Venezuela is one of those conflagrations that's raged in an eery silence, like a movie with the sound turned off, as we've gorged on the war in Iraq.

In a neighbor country, only a three-hour flight south of Miami, Hugo Chavez in recent months has jailed the union official who organized a strike to remove him from power; openly defied Supreme Court rulings to limit his power; imposed strict currency controls limiting U.S. dollars allowed in the country; and fired 17,000 workers at the country's largest oil company, the PDVSA. He replaced these professionals with industry neophytes and political appointees whose new assignment is "to help the poor."

Since Chavez was elected on the wings of such populist rhetoric in 1998 Venezuela's poor have suffered more than ever. The number of people living below the poverty line has soared to 80 percent from 67 percent, and the average annual income for Venezuelans last year fell 29 percent, to $3,835 from $5,385, according to Global Insight, a global economics consulting firm.

The crash has forced Leon to lay off workers at his companies, and Cora, who runs a small nursery and landscaping firm, has trimmed its staff to only three employees from the eight she normally employs.

"For us in Venezuela, the U.S. is our big neighbor and our protector," Cora says. "We have democracy and we value democracy. We are a Western society, not Islamic or Asian. And yet right now our democracy is in danger and it seems to us the U.S. is neglecting us while looking at other things."

A relevant metaphor here is metastasis -- the way pathogens like cancer cells spread suddenly from one organ in the body to another organ far away.

Is there a better way to explain 9/11?

Now we've clearly got a problem even closer to home.

As I understand Leon and Cora Topel, passionate patriots of Venezuela and Rochester, they are asking "How can we get healthy together?"

Copyright 2003 @ The McGill Report