June, 2016: We almost didn’t go to Venezuela at all. Stories of people getting robbed down to their underwear were mildly off putting. Fairly impassioned pleas from Venezuelan expats to stay away were also slightly disconcerting. Eventually we decided that we would start with trekking Roraima just over the border from Brazil and then re-assess. After Roraima, the prospect of seeing Angel Falls and searching for my family lured us further into the country. This happened a few more times where the lure of Venezuela’s beauty pushed us continuously on to the next place. However, as we moved around we found a country struggling and a population at breaking point. This post is about some of the unfortunate realities of Venezuela.
Why is Venezuela struggling?
Venezuela is in a bit of a pickle. Successive Socialist regimes have tried to enable a more equitable life for the poor but have driven the economy into the ground. Price controls on basic products have gradually driven domestic producers out of business. And, now the government can no longer rely on oil revenues to buy the required imports. This is driving shortages of basic groceries creating the huge supermarket lines you may have seen on the news. Like in many other Latin American countries, endemic corruption is also a major issue. Dubious natural resource management and a long dry season saw the country’s capacity to produce hydroelectricity severely curtailed. It also meant consistent availability of running water was a bit of a lottery.
Politically the country was at a bit of an impasse. Hugo Chavez was enormously popular but chose a former bus driver named Nicholas Maduro to take over. Some claim Maduro is not even Venezuelan but either way the man is seriously unpopular. While we were there in mid 2016, Maduro was under increasing pressure to allow free elections by year end. The opposition claimed they had collected enough signatures to trigger a recall referendum, but Maduro refused to recognise it. In effect, he basically said that a referendum and as a result elections would not happen. Instead he claimed that the opposition was attempting an illegal coup backed by the imperialist powers of the United States. He had even held nationwide military exercises to prepare for the impending invasion by said imperialist powers!
What did we see?
Our overnight bus journey from Santa Elena to Ciudad Bolivar was the first eye opener. While we were seated comfortably at the front of the top level, people just kept piling on. Eventually we had people seated on plastic stools in the aisle beside us and people standing all the way down the stairs to the toilet. I naively thought they were just getting a lift to the next town. However, upon questioning the poor unfortunate bugger next to us, it turned out they were all headed to the same place we were, 13-14hrs drive away. Throughout the night, we got woken up periodically to be searched by the overzealous military. Thankfully we weren’t being woken up by the marauding thieves who some locals had warned us about. 12 hours later we had left the relative peace and calm of the countryside for the hum-drum of decaying urbanity.
As we drove up north through the outskirts of Ciudad Guayana and Puerto Ordaz we could see faded and decaying buildings everywhere. Children walked to school through mounds of uncollected rubbish while proud shop owners swept the footpaths out front of shelves devoid of stock. In Ciudad Bolivar itself people were lining up for hours out front of the supermarkets for basic groceries. Rolling 4 hour blackouts were scheduled daily and running water would come and go without notice. Virtually every single bar and restaurant in the centre of town closed their doors after dark due to safety concerns and the streets were nearly completely deserted.
Buying fruit, veg, meat and eggs was relatively easy however rampant inflation (estimated at between 180% – 450% when we visited) was making it it rapidly more expensive. On the other hand, basic processed goods such as cooking oil and flour were relatively cheap due to price controls but virtually impossible to find. Many basic medicines were non-existent, hospitals don’t have enough electricity to run their wards 24/7 (including intensive care) and doctors were even running out of paper to write scripts. The national brewer Polar had stopped production because it couldn’t obtain enough foreign currency to buy Barley, and Coca – Cola had even stopped production of normal coke because it couldn’t get sufficient sugar! Numerous times we drove past impressive looking factories or machinery plants only to be told that they were a completely useless and 100% unproductive farce.
These are some of the realities of Venezuela but by no means the complete list.
What was the government doing about it?
Venezuela’s government has claimed to have everything under control. Indeed, it claimed that there is no crisis and that the measures implemented were effective. An example of such measures were government’s efforts to manage the country’s electricity shortages. Clocks were turned back by 30 minutes to have more working hours in daylight. The public sector working week was shortened from five to two days and schools were closed on Friday. The President even personally joined the fray to deliver national broadcasts sprucing energy saving measures. One such broadcast asked women to help save electricity by not blow drying their hair too much. While all these measures certainly saved some degree of electricity they didn’t fool many people. Many were incredulous that a country with the largest domestic oil reserves in the world should be in such a situation to start with.
What’s happening now?
Fast forward to early 2017 and the situation has worsened. Vatican brokered talks between Maduro and the opposition aimed at reaching some kind of political compromise have failed. Inflation has continued to sky rocket and the Bolivar is three times weaker against the USD. To further inflame things, the government is trying to recall the country’s largest bank note (the worthless 100) due to apparent, systemic money laundering. This ongoing attempted recall has caused huge lines at branches, closures of banks and ATM’s, and even border closures with Colombia. If all this sounds confusing as hell, imagine being a Venezuelan who has been putting up with this for more than a decade. Unfortunately these are the realities of Venezuela.