I have never been to Venezuela, but it is #1 on my travel wish list of places to visit. Azure-blue Caribbean waters. Majestic sand dunes. Soaring Andean peaks. Stilt villages in the middle of South America’s largest lake. Mile-after-endless-mile of dense Amazonian jungle. The world’s tallest waterfall. A seething urban megalopolis that is the final resting place of revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar. All of those places exist in Venezuela. Have you seen the Pixar movie Up? Do you remember the bizarre, rocky landscape upon which elderly Carl’s house landed on? That’s there, too.
The problem is, Venezuela is not safe. It almost certainly is the most dangerous country in the Americas. Around the time I became interesting in visiting the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the country was several years into its initial presidency with Hugo Chávez, a far-left populist with the United Socialist Party. Venezuela’s security situation went from “fair” to “bad.” In 2007 Chávez attempted to change the constitution so that he, essentially, could be president for life. This referendum was defeated by the narrowest of margins, but in the years that followed, the country’s economic and security situation deteriorated even more, from “bad” to “worse.”
A bear of a man, Hugo Chávez will – for better or for worse – never be forgotten. He was a master of media manipulation, always positioning his country’s TV news cameras just so, appearing like something of a gentle giant. He seemed to fear no one, not the O.A.S. (Organization of American States) and certainly not the United States. For this reason and others, he was often called a Communist. He was, in fact, close friends with Fidel Castro, himself long considered an “enemy” of the U.S. But Chávez suffered from pelvic cancer, and his health eventually began to deteriorate. It is believed by many that his mind started to go as well. He was convinced – and never quiet about it – that the U.S. was attempting to assassinate him.
On March 5, 2013, Hugo Chávez died of heart failure. Venezuela’s vice president (and one of Chávez’s right-hand men), Nicolás Maduro, was chosen to replace Chávez, and it is believed that this would have pleased the late dictator. But while many hoped for change, just as many feared that it would never come with the PSUV in power. Despite this, Maduro was formally elected – by the narrowest of margins once again – in April of that year. This being Latin America, cries of voter fraud were loud and clear, yet never investigated.
At the end of last year, Venezuela earned the top spot on the 2013 Global Misery Index Scores, originally created by economist Arthur Okun as a barometer of U.S. economic strength, but later expanded to measure other countries as well. Less than one month later, 2004 Miss Venezuela Mónica Spear was murdered – along with her ex-husband – in a brutal roadside robbery. Just one month after that, 22-year-old Venezuelan beauty queen Génesis Carmona was shot and killed in the city of Valencia.
Interestingly, Venezuela’s western neighbor, Colombia, has charted the exact opposite course. I visited Colombia in 2013 without incident, and that country remains one of my favorites. I journeyed as far east as Santa Marta, one of the oldest colonial cities on the Caribbean coast, and just a few hours by bus from the Venezuelan border.
If circumstances were different, I might have braved the border crossing and visited my friend José, who lives in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city, built on the shores of Lake Maracaibo and just a stone’s throw from the Colombian border. Alas, though, I didn’t feel safe, so I stayed longer in Colombia and completed the rigorous Ciudad Perdida trek instead. That four-day excursion remains one of the travel highlights of my life. I still owe José a visit, however, and judging by the list of wonders mentioned in paragraph one above, meeting my friend would be just the first few days of a much, much longer trip.
Oh, what a dream it is for me to one day visit Venezuela.
José Hernandez is a Maracaibero who has lived in Venezuela for most of his life. He lives with his parents and helps run the family business, a computer and ink recycling shop. I met José virtually when we were both active posters on the now-practically-defunct movie parody site, MrCranky.com. I don’t know how many other interests we share besides movies, but I know that I have an open invitation to stay with José and his family whenever the situation in Venezuela improves. I spoke with him via Facebook Messenger about the situation in his country. José is one of the smartest people I can call a friend, and I knew that he would be an honest source of information about exactly what is happening in Venezuela, from the protests in the streets to the inaction in the presidential palace to the country’s ever-worsening security situation.
Photos courtesy of Jose Hernandez and used with permission.
GRINGO: When do you think Venezuela took a turn for the worse? When Chávez was elected? Earlier than that?
JOSÉ: The thing with Venezuela was that after oil was nationalized in 1974 – if I recall correctly – pretty much the rest of the industries stopped, because it was cheaper to import things and they usually were of higher quality. Still, there were some industries, but the government spending started to get out of control and there was a lot of corruption going on. Chávez’s main platform when he ran the first time was, stop corruption, put guilty politicians in jail, and change the constitution, which worked really well because everybody was angry at the older politicians.
G: You mentioned the nationalization of oil. Venezuela is one of the most oil-rich nations in the Americas, but what other industry does it have?
J: In 1983, the Venezuelan “Black Friday” happened. You could buy dollars at 4.30 bolívares for many years, however that day it changed to 12 bolívares, and it started going up and up. It didn’t help, either, that oil was starting to go down, and since we didn’t have any other exports, the government funds started drying up. In 1989, the new government started applying the IMF recipe of cutting government spending and raising gasoline prices, but there were riots, and they stopped the new policies. The problem is that since the 70’s all the Venezuelan governments have been pretty populist, and the spending kept going up. Chávez got lucky with the oil prices, but he also spent way too much money, and didn’t look for alternatives to oil, destroying what little industries were left.
G: I was wondering if you could tell me more about the new censorship laws? Is it like old-school Communism, where dissenting thought is quashed?
J: Well, last October the government created a commission called CESPPA that would supervise the newspapers, and they had to approve the governmental news that the papers write. CESPPA answers directly to Maduro. The government has bought many TV stations, radio and newspapers, so they would start reporting pro-government news. Also, if the government couldn’t buy them directly, they would get lobbyists or businessmen who are pro-government to buy them. The president can do addresses on all the TV and radio stations whenever he wants for as long as he wants.
G: So much for freedom of the press. What about print media?
J: And there is the printing paper problem, most of the Venezuelan paper companies were confiscated by the government. It was cheaper for the newspapers to buy foreign printing paper, but since last year the government hasn’t give access to foreign currencies to most newspapers, so they are running out of printing paper. They are printing less news, and some will go out of business soon. There has been prosecution of reporters on the street. For example, when they are covering pro government rallies, if they are from a non-friendly newspaper or TV station, they get harassed and even punched. On Friday there was a big raid in Altamira Square in Caracas, which is the main square where the students are protesting. Among the people who were sent to jail were eight foreign journalists. VTV, which is the main government TV station, did a report saying they were international terrorists. They got out today, but the paper never ran a retraction, so the government supporters who usually only get the news from that channel now believe the government conspiracy that there are international terrorists trying to do a coup in Venezuela.
G: What about the opposition?
J: Globovision was the only national TV station that was pro-opposition, however it was bought last year by a pro-government businessman, and a lot of their journalists were fired or quit. Now, the opposition has almost no TV access.
Oh, and right after the protests started, the only TV station that had a live feed from the street, NTN24 – a Colombian news network based on Miami – was taken of the cable grids by Conatel (the national commission of television, kinda like the FCC), for conspiring against the government. CNN was threatened to be taken off too, but since CNN cannot be taken alone because Time Warner sells it as a package with TNT and other channels, so they took it back.
G: When Maduro replaced Chávez, you told me that “I can’t imagine things getting much worse,” and yet that seems to be exactly what happened. What did Maduro do to drive people to the breaking point?
J: Nothing in particular. I had the hope that Maduro would try for a government bringing different people into the fold, but he kept the same people Chávez had, showing he really didn’t have any personality, and everything he got in life was because of Chávez and being in the right place at the right time. All the things that are happening are the consequence of the bad economy policies taken by the Chávez government, and the censorship laws that started during his government.
G: We’ve heard about Chávez in the U.S. but not much about Maduro.
J: The thing is that Chávez had lots of charisma, and knew when to hold back. Maduro doesn’t have any finesse at all, and it seems that there is some tension around the PSUV. He aligned himself with the most radical wing of the party, and doesn’t tolerate any dissent at all.
Probably his biggest mistake has been limiting the currency exchange even more, making the importing of goods more difficult, and creating more scarcity of everyday products.
I think also the murder of Mónica Spear was like the last straw that made people realize that our security problem was too serious.
So economy in shambles, plus no security, and more censorship, it was an explosion waiting to happen.
G: What can readers do to learn more about the situation in your country?
J: Visit caracaschronicles.com. You’ll get good info there, but it is pro-opposition.
Several weeks elapsed from our initial chat session via Facebook while I did some research-gathering of my own. I later checked in with José again, hoping for a happy ending or at least a glimmer of hope. But it appears I may have to keep hoping.
G: It’s been awhile since last we chatted. I haven’t read much in the news about the situation in your country; are things getting better?
J: Protests have been winding down, but there are some places that haven’t stopped, yesterday and today, there were some serious situations in the northern part of the city. Some Chavistas got inside buildings where protests have been going on and burned down cars.
G: How are you personally? Staying safe?
J: Well we are closing the store here soon, maybe next month. Not sure what I will do. I might still work with my dad for awhile selling some stuff we have left, and we’ll import on a very small basis, but there is a chance it won’t be enough money for both of us.
G: Good luck with the store. Let me know where you end up.