'A slow-mo­tion catas­tro­phe': on the road in Venezuela, 20 years af­ter Chávez's rise

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Tom Phillips

The la­trines at Simón Bolí­var in­ter­na­tional air­port in Cara­cas over­flow with urine; the taps are bone dry. In the de­par­tures hall, weep­ing pas­sen­gers pre­pare for ex­ile, un­sure when they will re­turn.

At cus­toms, a sticker on one x-ray ma­chine warns: “Here you don’t speak badly about Chávez!”

But even be­fore step­ping out­side the ter­mi­nal it is ob­vi­ous his Bo­li­var­ian rev­o­lu­tion, like the air­port’s im­mo­bile es­ca­la­tors, has ground to a halt.

On 6 De­cem­ber 1998, Hugo Chávez pro­claimed a new dawn of so­cial jus­tice and peo­ple power. “Venezuela’s res­ur­rec­tion is un­der way and noth­ing and no­body can stop it,” the left­wing pop­ulist told a sea of euphoric sup­port­ers af­ter his land­slide elec­tion vic­tory.

Two decades on, those dreams are in tat­ters.

The co­man­dante is dead and his rev­o­lu­tion in in­ten­sive care as eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial chaos en­gulf what was once one of Latin Amer­ica’s most pros­per­ous so­ci­eties. Al­most 10% of Venezuela’s 31 mil­lion-strong pop­u­la­tion have fled over­seas; of those who re­main, nearly 90% live in poverty.

To un­der­stand Venezuela’s col­lapse, the Guardian trav­elled hun­dreds of miles across the na­tion Chávez dreamed of trans­form­ing, from the spot in down­town Cara­cas where he gave his first speech as pres­i­dent-elect to his birth­place in the coun­try’s sun­scorched south­west­ern plains.

On the way, we en­coun­tered lin­ger­ing af­fec­tion for a charis­matic pop­ulist still cel­e­brated as a cham­pion of the poor, and a de­ter­mi­na­tion among Venezue­lans from all walks of life to some­how weather the eco­nomic cy­clone rav­aging their coun­try.

But above all, there was de­pri­va­tion, hunger, pro­found ap­pre­hen­sion and seething anger – even among proud chav­is­tas – at a gov­ern­ment now in­ca­pable of ful­fill­ing its ci­ti­zens’ most ba­sic needs, and in de­nial over a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis un­prece­dented in mod­ern Latin Amer­i­can his­tory.

“Peo­ple do not un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing in Venezuela be­cause it is too hard to be­lieve,” says Al­berto Paniz Mon­dolfi, a doc­tor in the city of Bar­quisimeto, de­scrib­ing the im­plo­sion of a health ser­vice that was once the envy of the re­gion. “The most oil-rich coun­try ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated and turned into a war-torn na­tion – with­out a war.

“I’m not an­gry. I’m ter­ri­bly sad. Be­cause there was ab­so­lutely no need to get to this point. They just left the coun­try to die … and it is heart­break­ing.” Cara­cas

Twenty years af­ter Chávez de­clared Venezuela’s re­birth, its cap­i­tal is on its knees. Bill­boards try to per­suade ci­ti­zens that “to­gether ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble” but the mood is fu­ne­real and dazed.

By night, swaths of the city re­sem­ble a dis­as­ter zone: de­serted, car­less streets are plunged into dark­ness by power out­ages and bro­ken street lights. Fam­ished ci­ti­zens probe un­col­lected heaps of rub­bish.

“The feel­ing I have is one of a slow­mo­tion catas­tro­phe,” says Ana Teresa Tor­res, a Cara­cas-based au­thor. “It’s as if you are watch­ing a build­ing col­lapse and there is noth­ing you can do to stop it.”

De­spite the melt­down, in a tra­di­tion­ally chav­ista shan­ty­town called San Agustín, there is still de­vo­tion to the politi­cian many call “mi co­man­dante”.

“He was the man who took the poor out of the cat­a­combs,” says Gilda González, 50, the lo­cal co­or­di­na­tor of Misión Ribas, an ed­u­ca­tional pro­gramme Chávez set up in 2003.

González, a self-de­clared rev­olu­cionaria who keeps Fidel Cas­tro’s mem­oirs by her desk, pointed to an hori­zon of gov­ern­ment-built apart­ment blocks. “Ev­ery­thing you see here to­day was the co­man­dante’s do­ing, and our pres­i­dent, Ni­colás Maduro, is fight­ing hard to con­tinue that work,” she said of the man who in­her­ited Chávez’s rev­o­lu­tion af­ter he died in 2013.

Venezuela’s lead­ers blame the coun­try’s plight on sanc­tions and an “eco­nomic war” waged by what the for­eign min­is­ter, Jorge Ar­reaza, re­cently called the “ex­trem­ist, su­prem­a­cist, racist” gov­ern­ment of Don­ald Trump. “It’s not just an eco­nomic war, it’s an all-round war – a po­lit­i­cal war, a me­dia war and a trade war,” Ar­reaza claimed.

González agrees, and warns Bo­li­var­ian mili­tias will re­sist if the US pres­i­dent makes good on in­sin­u­a­tions that Maduro could be top­pled by for­eign force. “We are ready for asym­met­ric war,” she says.

But as Venezuela stag­gers deeper into ruin, once-ar­dent be­liev­ers are los­ing their faith. Pe­dro Gar­cía, a chav­ista so­cial worker and mu­si­cian in the same com­mu­nity, claims Chávez’s heirs have led the coun­try into an abyss of po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing and thiev­ery. As if to con­firm his point, the fol­low­ing day Chávez’s for­mer trea­surer was sen­tenced to 10 years in jail in the US for tak­ing more than a bil­lion dol­lars in bribes.

Gar­cía said he con­tin­ued to trea­sure the ideals un­der­pin­ning Chávez’s Bo­li­var­ian strug­gle – but un­der Maduro, Venezuela had be­come like a pres­sure cooker that had been left on for too long. “This mess will ex­plode any minute.”


When Chávez vis­ited the town of Ti­naquillo in 2005 he pledged to re­vive Venezuela’s flag­ging tex­tiles in­dus­try as part of a state-led ef­fort to re­duce de­pen­dency on oil – to­day the source of more than 95% of Venezuela’s ex­port earn­ings – and hand greater power to work­ers. “We are forg­ing a new path, a new so­cial­ism,” he de­clared.

Those plans have withered. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data handed to the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF) last month, Venezuela’s econ­omy shrunk 15.7% in 2017, while in­fla­tion hit 860%. Ex­perts be­lieve the real sit­u­a­tion is far worse.

“See this? This is our coun­try,” says Lili­beth San­doval, a lawyer and re­gional rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the op­po­si­tion group Vente Venezuela, as she tip­toes through the de­bris of a derelict tex­tile mill Chávez toured 13 years ago. “De­stroyed!”

At a nearby petrol sta­tion, at­ten­dants com­plain they have not been paid in months by Pd­vsa, the state-run oil com­pany that over­sees the world’s big­gest crude re­serves. “And this is still a good job,” says Ed­uardo Martínez. Tips from driv­ers mean it is just about pos­si­ble to sur­vive.

But Martínez’s trousers are shred­ded, his shoes filled with holes, and he has a seep­ing, un­treated ab­scess on his left wrist. “One day this will all come crash­ing down, just like the Twin Tow­ers,” he says.


A grin­ning Maduro stares down from a bill­board at the turn-off to the ru­ral town of Ma­capo, along­side the ral­ly­ing cry: “Vamos Venezuela.”

Thou­sands of lo­cals have al­ready gone.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mates 3 mil­lion have fled the coun­try since 2015 to es­cape chronic food and medicine short­ages, crum­bling health­care and trans­port sys­tems and an econ­omy in freefall.

For places such as Ma­capo, which lo­cals say has shed up to 15% of its 100,000 pop­u­la­tion, the re­sult is bro­ken fam­i­lies and empty homes. “There are no jobs here, there’s noth­ing,” says Juan Car­los Gue­vara, a re­tired teacher.

No life has been un­touched and Gue­vara, 53, is no ex­cep­tion.

In Fe­bru­ary his wife, Glenda, set off over­land for Peru with a group of 15 rel­a­tives. She works as a carer-cum-ac­coun­tant in Lima and sends funds to help her hus­band who lives offa weekly pen­sion of about 900 bo­li­vares (about $1.8) – an al­most im­pos­si­ble task be­cause of ram­pant hyperinflation that Maduro’s sup­pos­edly vi­sion­ary eco­nomic re­cov­ery plan has failed to tame.

“That’s not even enough to buy a kilo of cheese,” says Gue­vara.

With his wife gone, Gue­vara has bus­ied him­self dec­o­rat­ing his home ahead of a lonely Christ­mas. “This year there will be an empti­ness,” he says, tears welling in his eyes.

Gue­vara says he be­lieves po­lit­i­cal change is on the hori­zon and Venezuela’s di­as­pora will soon re­turn to re­build their home­land. But like all those the Guardian in­ter­viewed, he is un­able to say how or when.

Venezuela’s op­po­si­tion is frac­tured and, while lo­calised protests con­tinue, the mass demon­stra­tions of last year have faded, with many par­tic­i­pants chos­ing in­stead to leave the coun­try.

“I’m a very op­ti­mistic per­son ... [but] if this doesn’t hap­pen I will leave,” he says. “All of my doc­u­ments are ready.” Bar­quisimeto

Top chav­ista of­fi­cials deny their ci­ti­zens are go­ing hun­gry and have called the mi­gra­tion cri­sis fake news. A visit to the one-room hovel Ivan Hen­ríquez shares with his wife and six chil­dren in the city of Bar­quisimeto gives the lie to those claims. “They are liv­ing in a par­al­lel world,” the 35-year-old says of the daily churn of dis­in­for­ma­tion on state TV.

As Venezuela’s cri­sis has deep­ened over the past year, Hen­ríquez, like mil­lions of his fel­low ci­ti­zens, has found it in­creas­ingly hard to feed his fam­ily, let alone him­self. “I used to weigh some­thing like 70kg – now I’m 50kg, or less,” he says, show­ing the con­tents of their pantry: a half-empty sack of maize and a plas­tic bag filled with a few sticks of cas­sava.

Out­side, in a rub­bish-strewn gar­den, his chil­dren – aged from 11 months to 13 – study around a ta­ble fash­ioned from a bro­ken door with breeze­blocks as legs.

Hen­ríquez says his fam­ily sur­vive thanks to a $20 monthly re­mit­tance from his brother in Chile. But hyperinflation – which the IMF fears could hit 10,000,000% next year – meant that was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly tough.

“So many peo­ple are dy­ing of hunger in this coun­try … chil­dren are dy­ing be­cause of mal­nu­tri­tion,” he says, low­er­ing his voice to avoid his own off­spring over­hear­ing that bleak as­sess­ment.

Hen­ríquez blames his fam­ily’s plight on an ide­o­log­i­cal clash from which his coun­try’s lead­ers have re­fused to step back. “Venezue­lans are stuck in the mid­dle of a war that isn’t theirs.”

Bari­nas The high­way to Bari­nas, the south­west­ern state where Chávez grew up, is dot­ted with re­minders of Venezuela’s decay: fam­i­lies haul­ing arm­fuls of fire­wood or hik­ing down the hard shoul­der be­cause pub­lic buses are now as hard to find as food; po­lice bar­ri­cades where for­lorn-look­ing of­fi­cers shake down passersby for a pit­tance; aban­doned fac­to­ries, grain si­los and car show­rooms be­ing re­claimed by the un­der­growth; graf­fiti de­mand­ing the re­moval of the man most blame for the calamity – “¡Fuera Maduro!” – and patches of scorched as­phalt where tires have been burned by protesters.

Fad­ing So­cial­ist party mu­rals in­sist ev­ery­thing is in or­der: “Chávez vive y la pa­tria sigue!” (“Chávez lives and the home­land goes on!”)

But these days few are fooled by such claims. “Our lives are be­com­ing im­pos­si­ble,” says Eze­quiel Mota, a 73year-old farmer, queu­ing out­side a mil­i­tary con­trolled petrol sta­tion in the state cap­i­tal. He ex­pects to be there for at least 10 hours.

Across town the Guardian saw three petrol queues of more than 140 cars each. In the coun­try­side, a driver in an even longer line of ve­hi­cles says he has been wait­ing two days: “Some­times it’s four.”

“Ninety per cent of ci­ti­zens are against the gov­ern­ment be­cause they are lead­ing us into the most ab­so­lute state of mis­ery and poverty in the world,” Mota says. “That’s the truth.” Sa­baneta

Rosa Ri­vas has a poster from Chávez’s fi­nal elec­tion cam­paign in pride of place on the wall of her sit­ting room. “I have so much faith in the pres­i­dent,” she says. “I fear noth­ing when he’s close by.”

Ri­vas, at 85 still chav­ista to the bone, re­calls want­ing to die when she heard of her pro­tec­tor’s pass­ing. “I love him,” she whis­pers.

But in the town where Chávez was born, such ded­i­ca­tion ap­pears to be fad­ing.

“It’s lucky you came to­day be­cause last week all the roads were blocked [by protesters],” says Rodolfo Pa­len­cia, a farmer and or­gan­iser for the op­po­si­tion group Vol­un­tad Pop­u­lar.

Pa­len­cia, 46, says short­ages of food, medicine, gas, petrol and drink­ing wa­ter mean many res­i­dents are turn­ing against Chávez’s “malig­nant legacy”.

A min­strel as well as a mil­i­tant, Pa­len­cia reaches for a Venezue­lan fourstring gui­tar to per­form his mu­si­cal re­buke to chav­ismo. “From here in Bari­nas, I want to ask my Venezuela for for­give­ness,” he sings. “Be­cause we know it was here that the dis­as­ter be­gan, it was here that the co­man­dante who de­stroyed my na­tion was born.”

Pa­len­cia’s mother, Vi­dalina, grew up with “Hu­guito” and cheered his rise to power in 1998. “I felt proud that a boy I knew was go­ing to be pres­i­dent of the re­pub­lic and sud­denly ev­ery­thing was go­ing to change,” the 68-year-old says.

But Vi­dalina’s feel­ings shifted for good af­ter she was di­ag­nosed with can­cer and – like mil­lions of ail­ing Venezue­lans – was un­able to find the drugs she needed. “My only de­sire is for this mis­taken rev­o­lu­tion to end.”

In 2016 Vladimir Putin do­nated a gran­ite statue of Chávez to Sa­baneta and it was placed in one of its main squares to cel­e­brate the legacy of “the il­lus­tri­ous son of the Venezue­lan peo­ple”.

To­day it is chipped and charred hav­ing been set upon by anti-gov­ern­ment protesters. They failed to tear it down, but have vowed to re­turn.

Nearby, Chávez’s child­hood home is open to the pub­lic as a tribute to Venezuela’s “21st-cen­tury lib­er­a­tor” and his Bo­li­var­ian cru­sade. But it, too, has fallen on hard times. One room lacks a light­bulb; in an­other, a dis­play case hold­ing a pair of mara­cas has fallen off the wall and is propped up on two plas-

tic chairs.

Out­side on the ve­randa, be­side a mango tree the co­man­dante once scaled, there is a guest­book con­tain­ing homages that some­times hint at Venezuela’s de­cline. “Very good,” one pil­grim wrote in April. “But lack­ing in elec­tric­ity.”

The mu­seum care­taker, charged with re­ceiv­ing tourists since its two un­paid guides quit ear­lier this year, in­vites his lat­est vis­i­tors to add their names to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary reg­is­ter.

There was just one prob­lem. “We don’t have a pen­cil right now.”

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing Pa­tri­cia Tor­res and Clavel Ran­gel

Pho­to­graph: Fed­erico Parra/AFP/Getty Im­ages

Peo­ple con­front riot po­lice dur­ing a protest in Cara­cas against the short­age of food.

Pho­to­graph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

A road­side grave­yard of aban­doned buses inVenezuela’s Por­tuguesa state.

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