CARACAS, Venezeula Sept. 21, 2011 -- Forget oil. There is no commodity more valued in Venezuela than feminine beauty. The country holds six Miss Universe titles and five Miss World titles -- a total of 11 titles compared to America's 10.
In some countries, if a woman shows too much skin, it is considered scandalous -- even punishable by death -- but in Venezuela, breast implants are to be flaunted, not just among beauty contestants, but also by the working class folks who admire them.
This kind of public attitude towards breast implants explains the resulting shock when Venezuela's fatigue-wearing, socialist President Hugo Chavez made an out-of-the-blue address on state-run television earlier this year, venomously criticizing doctors who rake in cash from performing breast augmentations. Chavez claimed these doctors "convince some women that if they don't have some big bosoms they should feel bad."
The self-proclaimed feminist president also criticized poor women who pay for these costly breast implant procedures that they couldn't afford, calling it "a monstrous thing."
Dr. Pete Romer, the Michelangelo of plastic surgery, has personally nipped, tucked and enhanced thousands of Caracas women, including two of Venezuela's pageant queens.
"We just polish the beauty," he said. "All those girls are gorgeous and have good material. The proportions of face and body are almost perfect. My work is just change a little things."
Romer said he didn't think President Chavez should tell people how to spend their money. "We have a free country," he said.
Corina Gonzalez, a 23-year-old who always dreamed of being a model, attends one of Caracas' premier beauty schools, where many pay tuition just to learn how to walk like a Miss Universe.
"Here we have these beauty pageants and this means a lot to us," she said. "All those girls are so flawless, and they have big boobs, they have a perfect ass, perfect legs, the hair and everybody wants to be like them. When you're a little girl and people see you and tell you, 'oh my gosh, you're going to be Miss Venezuela!' and we grow up with that idea in the head."
Gonzalez wanted to enhance her beauty, and for her mother, Ester, her daughter's new enhanced breasts had little to do with beauty and a lot to do with necessity.
"It's an investment because no matter what you do she is getting prepared for life for any kind of job," she said. "All the courses she does and the beauty stuff is directed to her own growth. It's an investment no matter where she will use it."
That "investment" translated to a DD cup size.
But others think the president has a point. According to the Venezuelan Society of Plastic Surgeons, nearly 40,000 women in Venezuela undergo breast augmentation each year, and many sacrifice to do so. Implants can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000.
One woman said she stopped going to school and saved her money for six months to have breast implants, which she says were worth it. Other women have taken out loans, borrowed money from parents and boyfriends, generally spending money they didn't have on their bodies.
"It's a lot of money, of course well beyond the means of most Venezuelans," said Eva Gollinger, one of Chavez's advisers. "That's the major criticism that President Chavez was saying. This is not where your money should be invested in."
Still, some Venezuelan women agree think the government doesn't have the right to restrict the freedom of women to do what they want with their own bodies.
"It's a silly thing," one woman said. "It's a personal choice."
"He's crazy," Corina Gonzales said. "I mean I think he needs to get a woman or something. I think he's frustrated or something. I don't know."